The second-seeded Buckeyes won the East Regional Finals when it knocked off Syracuse 77-70 in Boston's TD Garden on Saturday night. Next up is a trip to New Orleans, where the Buckeyes are two wins shy of accomplishing the program's first national title since 1960.
Following are observations from Ohio State's (31-7) win over Syracuse.
Jared Sullinger came back for this – Sullinger could be in the NBA living the dream everyone in this country could experience for at least one day. Not that he isn't having a blast in college, but this tournament – this moment – is exactly why Sullinger is still in college basketball right now. And he's making the most of it, as he's averaging 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game through four contests in the tournament.
We've questioned his explosiveness at times and we've wondered if his head is truly in it with distractions with social media or refereeing, but it is as clear as ever that he lives for this. He wants the ball in his hands, he wants the big shots, and he wants to make every single play he possibly can. We've heard coaches call him a winner since he's been at Ohio State, but that desire has never been as tangible as it is right now.
It's hard not to feel good for Sullinger. He's going to participate in a Final Four, the goal he set for himself when he was somberly sitting in the Prudential Center's locker room after the Sweet 16 loss a year ago. Sure, he has to be more careful about his fouls, but the bottom line is he's too close to the prize to let up now. His team knows what they're going to get out of him every night, and with a talent like Sullinger, that's not a bad place to be.
Amir Williams was ready to go – Ask Ohio State's coaching staff what they would have thought about having Williams in for a big stretch in the first half against top-seeded Syracuse and they likely would have been hesitant to answer. I thought for sure he was going to fold in the moment – after all, Syracuse is a very talented team and the Final Four was on the line. However, Williams had four points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in nine minutes of action. He was the reason Ohio State was tied at halftime without Sullinger and Evan Ravenel. You have to hand it to Williams for not only being ready, but perhaps giving Matta something to think about in potential lineups in the Final Four. He was that good.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. becoming a clutch player? – Smith told me in the locker room after the game that he hasn't been an offensive threat because he simply hasn't shot the ball. The coaching staff, however, has urged him to try and score more recently and he said he's shooting with the most confidence he ever has. That was evident in each of the last two games, as Smith hasn't only been scoring, but he's been knocking down huge buckets at crucial times when his team needs them the most. We have seen how good this team can be when perimeter players are playing well with Sullinger. If Smith continues to be this big of a threat, it is hard to imagine how the Buckeyes are going to lose.
William Buford looked lost… Again – I feel like I've been Buford's biggest advocate, but there's no other way to say this – he can't have terrible shooting nights. Ohio State has been able to advance despite them the last few games because of big performances from Smith and Deshaun Thomas, but at what point is this senior going to start playing like one. Sure, he did grab nine rebounds – which is important when he's not shooting well – but Buford has seemed lost out there during certain sequences. This team is on the verge of accomplishing some big things, but Ohio State would be in way better position to do those things if Buford can put it together for two more games.
Matta's best coaching job at Ohio State? – This team was in shambles two months ago. The Buckeyes were losing games, Sullinger admitted to being distracted, and the Big Ten title seemed out of reach. Then the Buckeyes responded with two road wins in the final week of the regular season to capture a share of the Big Ten title. Ever since then, Ohio State has been the team many hoped it would eventually become. Ohio State could have gone the opposite direction and been an early-round flame out, but there isn't enough credit in the world for the coaching job Matta just completed. He's had some very talented teams in the past, and this team is no exception, but getting this year's squad to this point is incredibly impressive.