Well here we are ladies and gentlemen. As the kids say, now is when things get real. The feeling around Columbus seems to be that the Buckeye basketball team is right where it is supposed to be: the Sweet 16. As we head into Thursday night’s game against the University of Cincinnati, anything less than a win will feel like a serious letdown. I’ve written about it before, but the fact that a third straight sweet 16 appearance could in any way be a letdown is a testament to how far That Matta has brought the Ohio State Program.
The fact of the matter, though, is that those who say it would be a disappointment are absolutely right. It would be one thing if the Buckeyes were playing Kansas or North Carolina or some other national power. The fact of the matter, though, is that they’re playing that team from down south that desperately wants to put itself on the same level as Ohio State athletically. As Bearcat fans would have you believe it, Ohio State, a team that schedules Duke, Kansas, and Florida in basketball and Texas, USC, Miami and Oklahoma in football, is scared to schedule UC in either sport. They see this as a chance for the school to flex its muscles and show the Buckeye fans who is really running things. Rest assured, there will be plenty of “bUCkeye state” brought out of storage this weekend.
Fortunately, none of the hype really matters once the teams hit the floor. Both teams are much more concerned with earning an elite eight bid than winning any sort of in-state bragging rights. On the floor the Bearcats are a very solid team. They typically play with four guards spreading the floor, and big man Yancy Gates in the center.
On paper the Buckeyes are a better team than the Bearcats. Yancy Gates and Jaquon Parker are good, but Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are better. The Bearcats have a number of quality guards, but they’re certainly not measurably better than what the Buckeyes will be trotting out. And, of course, Aaron Craft will be the best defender on the floor. If both teams play their best game, the 7-point spread that Vegas is currently offering seems more than fair.
That’s why you can expect UC to do everything in its power to keep the Ohio State from playing its game. Expect to see the Bearcats press all game long, especially after it helped them to an astonishing 13-steal performance against Florida State. Yancy Gates will be banging on Sullinger early, trying to get in his head. The Bearcats will try to counter OSU’s talent advantage by controling the style of play. It’s certainly something that they are capable of doing to more talented teams, just ask Syracuse.
Now on to the prediction….
The Bearcats Win If…
Hell freezes over. Ok, Ok, seriously though. For the Bearcats to win, they’re going to have to play fast on the outside and tough on the inside. The Buckeyes are too good defensively to get torched consistently by a team that ranked 166th nationally in PPG, so the Bearcats will need to force turnovers and cash in on their transition opportunities. PG Cashmere Wright averages two steals per game, and he’ll need to have at least that many against the Buckeyes. Yancy Gates will also have to get physical in the middle with Jared Sullinger. Sullinger has shown a penchant for getting frustrated by rough play, and as he proved against Xavier, Gates isn’t afraid to get dirty. If Gates can knock Sullinger off of his game, it could be a long night for the Buckeyes on the offensive end.
Finally, for the Bearcats to win, it will come down to free-throw shooting. For all of the struggles that the Buckeyes have had from the stripe this season, the Bearcats have been worse. Sean Kilpatric has the highest FT percentage on the team at 75 percent, and three of the UC starters have percentages in the 60s. If the 6-seed Bearcats want to pull the upset, they’re going to have to take advantage of their trips to the line. They can’t leave points on the floor and expect to beat a team like the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes Win If
As a team that plays four guards most of the time, the Bearcats are vulnerable on the inside. If Jared Sullinger plays well, he will command most of Yancey Gates’ attention, leaving Deshaun Thomas with a favorable matchup (a 6’2” guard to be exact). Thomas has been on fire of late, averaging 24.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game during the NCAA tournament. Where he has really had an advantage is on the offensive glass, and with a guard on him for most of the game, he should be able to continue the trend.
It’s going to take more than just a good night from Thomas though. Aaron Craft, William Buford, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will have their hands full with a collection of UC perimeter players that Thad Matta called “the fastest that the team has seen all season long.” To combat this, the OSU perimeter players will need to take care of the ball on the offensive end. They can’t afford to give up quick fast-break points due to sloppy ball-handling. They will also need to keep up their usual defensive intensity, staying in front of their men and preventing quick shots. It might not be pretty, but the Buckeyes are going to have to play a classic Big-10 “grind it out” game.
How it Will End Up
Depending on where you go, the line for this game is between seven and eight points, and that feels about right. I see the Bearcats forcing enough turnovers on the defensive end to stay in the game, but eventually the Buckeyes superior talent will win out. Deshaun Thomas will have another big night. I expect him to be the best player on the court again, and to lead the way as the Buckeyes pull away late.
Final Score: OSU 65, UC 58