Starting Five: Ohio State-Syracuse Preview
After advancing to its first Sweet 16 in five years, the No. 2-seed Ohio State men’s basketball team (30-7, 13-5 Big Ten) will now look towards advancing to its tenth Final Four in program history when it plays in Saturday night’s Elite Eight game against No. 1-seed Syracuse (34-2, 17-1 Big East). The Buckeyes and Orange will tip-off in Boston at 7:05 PM in a game that can be seen live on CBS.
Against The Zone
Syracuse enters Saturday night’s game as the Boston region’s top-seed, a ranking that they earned before their center, and Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Fab Melo, was ruled academically ineligible. Despite Melo’s absence, the Orange have managed to advance this far with center Rakeem Christmas playing as the anchor in its 2-3 zone defense.
“With Fab Melo out, obviously the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, obviously that's a big‑time loss. I've know Rakeem ever since we was young in AAU, so I know Rakeem likes to block shots, and he's physical,” OSU forward Jared Sullinger said. “It's going to be a very physical game. Whoever wins this game is going to be in the Final Four, so everybody is going to give it their all.”
The Buckeyes haven’t played against a ton of zone defenses this season, but they have some recently, with both Gonzaga and Cincinnati shifting away from their traditional man-to-man defenses against OSU. Still, OSU coach Thad Matta said that there’s something that Syracuse possesses that makes its defense unique.
“Size. Size. And they play it more obviously frequently,” Matta said. “Cincinnati had shown a lot of man to man prior to it.”
Thomas On A Tear
One key to OSU busting Syracuse’s zone could be forward Deshaun Thomas, who has been on a hot streak recently, scoring 18 or more points in five of the Buckeyes’ past six games. At 6-foot-7 and possessing the capability to shoot from the outside, Matta said that Thomas is the ideal player to possess when matching up with the Orange.
“You look at kind of the climate of college basketball now, and it's really shifted to skilled four men and guys that can really stretch the defense,” Matta said. “The great thing Deshaun has is he cannot only stretch it but he's driving the ball. The last month of the season, he's really putting it on the deck and doing a better job there, but he can also post‑up. He finds seams, and then he's a very prolific rebounder on the offensive end, as well.”
No one has enjoyed Thomas’ recent national coming out party more than Thomas himself, who credited the Buckeyes’ back-ups for pushing him in scrimmages.
“Going in practice, playing against our second string, just playing it like it's a game,” Thomas said. “Everything has been clicking. I mean, the shots have been going in, the defense has been well, and I've just been out here playing hard.”
Scouting The Orange
Offensively, the Orange is led by forward Kris Joseph, who is averaging 13.5 points per game, and sixth man Dion Waiters, who adds in 12.7 per night. Matta said that Waiters in particular has caught his eye recently.
“He's just a tremendous basketball player. I think you look at every great basketball team, and everybody has a role to play, and I'm sure Dion has accepted this role,” Matta said. “He's like my guys; they all want to score 25 points every night. But putting winning first, and what he brings when he comes into the basketball game is just a tremendous boost to what they're doing.”
Unlike the Buckeyes- who only possess one senior in guard William Buford- Syracuse is led by a duo of seniors in Joseph and guard Scoop Jardine, a fifth-year senior who Matta coached against in 2007 when OSU defeated Syracuse in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“I can remember when we played Syracuse in the Garden four years ago, and Scoop was a freshman,” Matta said. “I've always said this to our teams: I can't create a drill in practice to give you experience.”
Final Four On The Line
Should the Buckeyes find a way to contain Waiters, Joseph, and Jardine, they could very well find themselves in their first Final Four since 2007. That would be quite the accomplishment for a team that Matta didn’t think would win more than one tournament game back in November.
“It means a lot to me. But I mean, one of the team's goals was definitely get past the Sweet 16, which the past two years we lost,” Sullinger said. “So that was definitely one of our goals. But now we're just trying to keep the train rolling and hopefully we can make it to that spot.”
OSU guard Aaron Craft agreed with Sullinger in stating that making it to college basketball’s final weekend would check another goal off the Buckeyes’ list.
“It's a team goal for everyone when they start the season to try to get to the Final Four,” Craft said. “I think the best thing that we can do now is enjoy it, enjoy it together. But understand it is going to be a basketball game. They're a great team. It's going to take a great team effort from us to hopefully play another game after this.”
In November, the Buckeyes defeated OSU video coordinator Greg Paulus’ former basketball team. On Saturday night, they’ll face Paulus’ hometown team and the school that he played football for during the 2009 season
“There was nobody rooting harder for Syracuse in year than he was,” Matta said. “I think he feels like he's got a great part of that program, and he loves the staff and his teammates.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who expressed great admiration for Matta during his Friday press conference, said that he has great faith that Paulus could one day follow in his footsteps.
“I've known Greg since he was in about eighth grade. He's a great player and loves the game and a great football player and basketball player, and I've always enjoyed conversations with him over the years,” Boeheim said. “He's a great kid. He understands the game. He'll be a tremendous coach.”