Aaron Craft and his brother, Brandon, had the going-away talk Saturday morning. Brandon, an Army infantryman, was being deployed to Afghanistan, and said he wished he could watch Aaron Saturday night and be with him.
So the emotions were everywhere. And by the end of the day, Aaron, a starting guard for Ohio State, had helped to lead the Buckeyes past Syracuse 77-70 and into the Final Four.
What a day! And what a story Ohio State takes to the Final Four. It also adds superstar appeal with a player who chose college over pros, has a coach fighting a disability, and who knows what else.
Ohio State did the NCAA a huge favor Saturday night by winning, and, most importantly, keeping Syracuse (SyrAccuse?) out of New Orleans.
"He’s doing something more important," Craft said about his brother. "It just keeps everything in perspective."
Perspective. Syracuse, the No. 1 seed, is out. What an unlikable tale.
Their season was about scandal and accusations, lawsuits and drug and pedophile allegations, suspensions and firings. Somehow, Syracuse couldn’t be stopped. The NCAA couldn’t do it while due process played out. And Syracuse kept winning, winning, winning.
The players were amazing to get this far through all the turmoil. But in the end, it all finally caught up to Syracuse. With star Fab Melo declared ineligible for the NCAA tournament — for reasons that have not been revealed — Syracuse was missing too big of a piece. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger had 19 points and 7 rebounds.
It was a moment of personal redemption for Sullinger. He could have gone to the NBA after last season, his freshman year, as a high draft pick. Instead, he chose to come back to college, and had injuries and frustrations. His NBA stock dropped, meaning he cost himself plenty of money.
This year was not what he had expected, but it is ending the way he had dreamed.
"I made the right decision as soon as I said I was coming back, without a doubt," he said. "It was a chance for me to work on my game, elevate my game, and win. That’s the biggest thing . . . Winning is a big key for me."
Syracuse’s story unfolded in such an ugly way all year, starting with Boeheim’s assistant, Bernie Fine, being fired over pedophile allegations. Boeheim recklessly suggested that the accusers were in it for the money. He later apologized. By season’s end, Yahoo! Sports reported that the NCAA is looking into Syracuse’s drug policy, and whether players from past teams failed tests and were still allowed to play. Then Melo was ruled out.
For the most part, analysts, reporters and Boeheim’s coaching buddies were praising him for his success through adversity, not noting that it was his mess.
"All the distractions, all the adversity we faced," Syracuse’s Brandon Triche said. "We overcame. The love we have for each other . . . it’s tough to lose."
Yes, the players, anyway, were impressive through it all. Give them that. But still, the NCAA did not need that mess as a focus at the Final Four.
It’s too simple to paint things so black and white, of course. But that’s how sports are portrayed, good vs. evil. Who would have thought that Ohio State, with its own scandals and coach firings in football in 2011, would turn out to be the good-guy saviors in 2012 hoops?
Thad Matta, Ohio State’s coach, has somehow turned a football school into a national basketball powerhouse. This will be his second Final Four in six years.
"I think six years ago, I probably didn’t enjoy the moment as much as I wanted or needed to," he said. "But . . . truth be told, I probably won’t enjoy this one, either. And we’ll get down there and try to play our best basketball."
Matta has only recently been willing to talk about his disability. It will be a big subject in New Orleans. He has had multiple back surgeries over the past five years, and the nerves down his right leg did not regenerate. He now has drop-foot and wears a foot and ankle brace.
He said that during the year, players would jump over him or around him when the ball got near the sidelines. They would do anything they could to avoid running into him, even if it meant running into something else.
On Saturday, Sullinger spent most of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. Matta kept waiting for the team to fall behind, which would have forced him to put his best player back in the game. Instead, the Buckeyes stuck right with Syracuse. The game was tied at 29 at halftime.
From there, Sullinger was a factor. But Syracuse’s defense actually covered him well. Ohio State’s help came from the unexpected: center Amir Williams, and also guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who had 18 points. Sullinger said the bench players were the stars.
When it was over, Matta managed to climb the ladder to cut down his piece of the net. There was no missing this, no matter how hard his foot would make it.
"You noticed I had guys to catch me," he said. "They know. I have no balance, and as crazy as it sounds, the brace picks it (the foot) up, but it doesn’t stop it from going sideways. Yeah, they were there to catch me in case I fell."
It was the right finish, the feel-good finish. The NCAA saved face. Ohio State swept away the mess.