OSU Zoned In On 'Cuse

The second-seeded Ohio State basketball team is one win away from the Final Four. But if the Buckeyes want to take a trip to New Orleans, the team understands it has to be patient against top-seeded Syracuse's zone defensive scheme.

Thad Matta anticipated Cincinnati would play zone defense.

Perhaps that's how Ohio State's head coach was able to justify glancing a game forward when thinking about Syracuse's notorious 2-3 zone defense even before the Buckeyes advanced past the Bearcats in Thursday night's Sweet 16 matchup.

"We spent a majority of our time this week (before getting to Boston) going against zone," Matta admitted after second-seeded Ohio State beat No. 6 Cincinnati 81-66 in the TD Garden. "And I told our guys, trying to motivate them, when we play Syracuse on Saturday, this will pay off for us."

Matta didn't mince his words when addressing his team. He didn't bother entertaining the fact that Ohio State wouldn't be advancing past the Bearcats, nor did he think his team would have the luxury of advancing to the Elite Eight and playing anyone other than the East Region's top seeded team.

Syracuse held on to knock off No. 4 Wisconsin Thursday night to set the showdown Matta knew to expect days before arriving in New England. The Orange (34-2) have ridden their zone defense to perhaps the most impressive season of any team in college basketball to this point.

The Bearcats don't sport the athleticism and length Syrcause does, but the Buckeyes got a primer to what they're in line to face in tomorrow's Elite Eight matchup. Ohio State showed patience and quick ball movement against Cincinnati in the first half before building a 12-point halftime lead. Deshaun Thomas, one of Ohio State's two athletic posts, had 20 points in the game's first 20 minutes.

"I know Syracuse is going to play a 2-3 zone, there's no hiding that," sophomore big man Jared Sullinger said. "We're going to have to score and execute our offense even though they're playing a 2-3 zone. We can't just sit back and let them punch us. We've got to throw the first punches."

Ohio State will try and throw those punches by penetrating Syracuse's interior with Sullinger and Thomas. Those two players combined have created matchup issues for opponents, especially since both are bigs that hit the boards hard and have the versatility to knock down open shots.

Through three NCAA Tournament games, an average game for Thomas and Sullinger is the two combining for 42.7 points and 17.4 rebounds. Against the Bearcats, the duo combined for 49 points and 18 rebounds.

Ohio State will continue to attempt to play the inside-outside game. Getting both players touches inside will be instrumental in the Buckeyes' efforts to find great – not good – shots from the floor. Find the best shot has been a new focus for the Buckeyes recently.

In the NCAA Tournament specifically, Thomas and Sullinger have found chemistry with one another. Both have a feel for where the other is going to be and their size and athleticism allows for aggressiveness on the boards when the other doesn't convert.

"Yeah, I think we've gotten way better playing together," Thomas said. "We've learned that teams are double-teaming us and playing the right guy out of the double-team. He's seen me flashing, now they're double-teaming me, so now I see him flashing. So I think that's way better."

But Syracuse will try and dissuade the Buckeyes from finding the two players in the post. The Orange will leave outside looks open in effort to tempt the Buckeyes to fire average shots early in the shot clock without going through their offensive progression.

That strategy almost cost the Orange against the Badgers, a team that got hot from long range in the second half before finishing 14 of 27 from 3-point range. Wisconsin – who made a three on six-straight possessions at one point – ultimately fell because it couldn't knock down a three in the game's final six minutes.

Ohio State hasn't necessarily been at their best when firing jumpers instead of working it into Sullinger, but hesitation when looks from the outside present itself is a recipe to fail. Senior William Buford, who made only 1-of-8 shots against Cincinnati, knows shooting with confidence is the way to replicate what Wisconsin did.

"It's not our game plan just to get some threes," Buford said. "We want to move the ball against their defense. The threes certainly count but we want to move the ball and work it inside out. If you take a shot, you know you're going to have to make a shot. If we take those shots and know we're going to make it, most likely they're going to go down."

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