Buckeyes still smarting from last year's NCAA exit
Ohio State has four sophomore starters and one bad NCAA tournament memory.
The Buckeyes were knocked out of last year's tournament in the regional semifinals by a jumper by Kentucky's Brandon Knight with 5 seconds to play. A No. 1 seed last year, the Buckeyes felt their season ended way too soon.
A No. 2 seed this year, Ohio State starts a run at a 10th Final Four when it plays 15th-seeded Loyola (Md.) on Thursday night in the second round of the East Regional.
''I just think it affected everyone a little differently last year,'' sophomore guard Aaron Craft said. ''Everyone kind of took a step back and felt what they could do to make the game change. At the same time I think we did a good job of trying to move on. We can't live in the past. Figure out a way to help this basketball team be better, because it's not the same as last year.''
The Buckeyes (27-7) were a tri-champion of the Big Ten this season. Loyola (24-8) finished second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and won the conference tournament to seal its second NCAA tournament berth, 22 behind the Buckeyes.
''I know what a great team Ohio State is. It's an honor to play them,'' Greyhounds coach Jimmy Patsos said. ''We probably have little chance of winning the game. Four minutes at a time, we'll see what we can do.''
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger was a first-team All-America last season as a freshman. He averaged 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds this season while earning All-Big Ten honors.
''In March you enter the tournament, records go out the door. It's not about what conference they're from,'' Sullinger said. ''Doesn't matter what is the record. Everybody is fighting for their life. We got to understand that tomorrow is not a promise. I think that's the biggest motto this basketball team has to embrace is: Tomorrow's not a promise.''
Sullinger sounded like someone who believes that when he talks about Loyola, which had the first 20-win season in school history in 2011-12.
''They're a very athletic basketball team. They like to get up and down the floor. Love transition,'' Sullinger said. ''A lot of guys can score the basketball for them. I mean, they have five guys averaging double figures so they're a very balanced team. One person is not going to beat us. It's a team effort. We have to stop everybody.''
That's what Patsos is afraid of.
''We'll still run and press against them,'' said Patsos, a longtime assistant to former Maryland coach Gary Williams. ''Ohio State wants to play their way. If you play their way, you're not going to beat them. I think they can win the national championship this year.''
Thad Matta has taken the Buckeyes to the NCAA tournament six times in his eight seasons, and they have reached the round of 16 three times, including the national runner-up finish in 2007.
''We're averaging 27 wins in eight years,'' Matta said. ''I think from the standpoint of going to the NCAA tournament, we've been a 1 seed twice, we've been a 2 seed three times, then I think an 8 seed. From the standpoint of who we've recruited, the type of kid that we've brought in, the character of those kids, how they've represented the program and the university probably most importantly, I'm very excited where we are and the direction we're heading in.''
The Loyola players believe they have a shot at a major upset if the Greyhounds can control the tempo. They want to run, even though it didn't look that way in the 48-44 win over Fairfield in the conference championship game.
''When I look at them, they're not very deep,'' said 6-10 Shane Walker, who will probably get the assignment of guarding Sullinger. ''They only play six or seven guys. I feel like we can run them. They try to slow the game down. We try to speed it up. Hopefully that will work in our advantage.''
Patsos expanded on his statement about the Greyhounds having little chance to win.
''I think we have a chance, though, I do, because if we get the game going fast, we have a chance,'' Patsos said. ''If they put us in the meat grinder and go slow, Sullinger goes to work, you can call me at 4-1-0. I'll be in Baltimore Friday by noon.''
Loyola is on a one-game winning streak against the Big Ten, having beaten Indiana 72-67 on Dec. 22, 2002. Its other NCAA appearance was as a 15 seed in 1994 when the Greyhounds lost 81-55 to Arizona.
None of that matters to Sullinger whose mind is still on last year and that heartbreaking loss to Kentucky.
''I think we understand we thought we worked pretty hard last year and thought we had a good mindset, and we still came up short,'' he said. ''Just understanding, you know, it's a whole other level, but it can be a lot of fun and hopefully we can enjoy this.''