The Sweet 16 – the round in which the Buckeyes fell in each of the last two seasons – is in the rearview mirror and the team is still standing after knocking off Cincinnati, 81-66, in Boston's TD Garden Thursday night.
Next up for the second-seeded Buckeyes is No. 1 Syracuse in a matchup many predicted the day the bracket was initially released. On the line is the Buckeyes' first trip to the Final Four since the 2006-07 season.
But the Buckeyes had to overcome a tough battle with the Bearcats (26-11) to advance to the Elite Eight. We take a look at some of the observations from that game before moving forward to the looming battle with the Orangemen.
Jared Sullinger looks rejuvenated physically – It could have been because he was injured. Perhaps he was tired. Maybe he was frustrated with his touches in the paint. Whatever it is that people came up with to describe the lack of explosion in Sullinger's game during the month of February, it looks as if the sophomore All-America big man is starting to get it back. And it couldn't be happening at the right time.
Though Cincinnati's Yancy Gates had a distinct size advantage over Sullinger, the Buckeyes' big dominated the game in 37 minutes of action. He finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, but most importantly, he sported that explosiveness many thought he had been lacking or even lost. It was the powerful Sullinger on the boards many fondly remembered and it was him attacking the rim when his team needed him the most that helped fend off the tough Cincinnati run in the second half. The happy and motivated Sullinger is back – and it couldn't have happened at a better time for Ohio State.
BONUS: Sullinger hit two clutch shots in the final three minutes in Ohio State's win over Gonzaga and after the game Thad Matta referred to him as a winner and someone the Buckeyes would continue to go to down the stretch. He picked up a critical third foul in the second half and Matta didn't hesitate to leave him in the game. That may have been the most critical decision of the contest, because the big man played smart basketball, attacked the boards and remained smart on defense while staying in.
Thomas has become the OSU No. 2 – It has seemed to me that Ohio State is incredibly hard to beat when one perimeter player plays extremely well in the same game Sullinger does. That player used to have to be William Buford. In this year's NCAA Tournament, it has become Thomas. Perhaps basketball is a little more intricate than that for Ohio State, but if it is true, Thomas' recent domination – or, perhaps more importantly, consistency – could have the Buckeyes in a really good spot heading into their Elite Eight game against Syracuse.
With just one more game to go before punching its ticket to its second Final Four under Matta, Ohio State is most certainly relying on Thomas' ability to consistently score in bunches. And that is happening at the perfect time because it is coinciding with the rejuvenation of Sullinger. Both Sullinger and Thomas acknowledged after the game that they played off each other more comfortably than over before. Given both players' skillsets, that seems like an incredibly difficult thing for any opposing team to overcome if it continues at this rate of efficiency.
Aaron Craft dominated the game without scoring a ton – Maybe Craft played one of his most recognizable games when he came up big for the Buckeyes against Gonzaga. Against Cincinnati, Craft didn't light up the box score and didn't attack the rim nearly as much. He even missed a pair of critical attempts from beyond the arc that were wide-open looks early in the second half. However, Craft played perhaps the most impressive defensive game of his sophomore season on his way to lighting up one portion of the box score – he had six steals.
Craft really makes this team dangerous when he's attacking on the offensive end and scoring at will, just ask Gonzaga. However, it is what he does consistently on the defensive end that makes him the heart and soul of this team. I often watch him and he is always one step ahead of everyone else. Those steals are being planned seconds before the ball is even within his reach. He's a relentless defender that causes so much frustration for his opponents. I'm usually weary when people say someone is the best at something, but Craft has to be the best defensive player in college basketball. How big of an asset is that in this tournament?
Sweet 16 not so sweet for Buford – It would have been a good story had Buford been the one to light up the scoreboard today. However, the senior went 1-for-8 from the floor and had four turnovers. Combining his shooting numbers to last year's Sweet 16 and Buford was 3-for-22 total. Though Buford did have some good defensive sequences and he added five rebounds, the senior didn't play a very good game. We have learned that one game isn't typically dependent on the other, so he could bounce back big on Saturday against the Orangemen. If he gets going along with Thomas and Sullinger, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which this team loses.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. puts together a solid performance – He's typically the forgotten man because he doesn't always put up big offensive numbers, but Smith had a pretty complete game against the Bearcats. Quietly, Smith made 6-of-7 shots on his way to 15 points in addition to his five rebounds and two assists. The lengthy shooting guard's performances are always going to be quiet, but that was a really good game for him. Providing any semblance of that moving forward would be quite the insurance policy for the Buckeyes.