Advancing would be sweet for Buckeyes
The numbers tell the story. Both for Syracuse and Ohio State, who will match not only numbers, but skills and aspirations tonight at the TD Garden in the NCAA East Regional final.
Start with No. 1-seeded Syracuse, which has won a school-record 34 games, the latest a 64-63 win over Wisconsin Thursday night.
Toss in one national championship, four trips to the Final Four, and seven Elite Eight and 16 Sweet 16 appearances and you have a history of success that put together with coach Jim Boeheim’s 890 career victories gives you a footprint of an elite basketball program.
Switch to second-seeded Ohio State (30-7), which rolled into the final with a solid 81-66 victory over Cincinnati.
The Buckeyes have one national title, 10 Final Fours, and 14 Sweet 16 appearances, with a current streak of three in a row.
But for all their past successes, neither team has been able to clear the Final Four hurdle in recent years.
Ohio State’s last Final Four appearance was in 2007; Syracuse has not been there since winning the title in 2003.
With that as a backdrop, one factor stood out Friday as both teams went about their business of preparing for Saturday night’s game - the bar is set high for both programs.
The disappointment felt by coach Thad Matta and the Buckeyes after losing in the Sweet 16 the last two seasons lingers.
“Coach Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped,’’’ said Ohio State’s All-America sophomore forward Jared Sullinger. “Well, it did stop. And we wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling.
“I mean, it’s tremendous to be in a situation like this, and it’s a blessing, but at the same time, we can’t lose sight of focus.’’
Sullinger, playing in his second straight Sweet 16, acknowledged that Syracuse will pose a different, if not more challenging, test than Cincinnati.
“I know we’re going to face a 2-3 zone,’’ said Sullinger, who posted his 34th career double-double with a 23-point, 11-rebound effort against Cincinnati. “There’s no hiding that. They’re very long. They’re very athletic. I mean, they can get up and down with the best of them.
“So it’s going to be a game that we’re going to have to try and control the tempo and 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’re going to have throw the first punches, not literally, but . . .’’
Matta played the praise game perfectly with Syracuse.
“When you look at Coach Boeheim, he has done a great job. I hate to say this, since I was a little kid, just watching Syracuse year in and year out, all the great teams they had,’’ said Matta. “Obviously, they’re playing at a high level.’’
Matta said he is surprised the Buckeyes have accomplished as much as they have this season. “I couldn’t be happier for this team,’’ he said. “If you would have told me in November this team was going to win 30 games, I would have said there’s no way.’’
In the most simplistic of terms, Saturday night’s meeting will offer some intriguing individual matchups, beginning in the backcourt, where the offensive finesse of Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine will be tested by the defensive dominance of Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.
Matta said the goal for the Buckeyes is clear, even more so if they can make it to the Final Four.
“I think it says you’re obviously a great basketball team,’’ said Matta. “As you look at the parity across the board in college basketball, I think it says that you’re playing your best basketball at the right time of the season.’’
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.