Ohio State can't get past SEC yet again
The trophy case at Ohio State houses seven national titles in football and one in basketball, but there's no use worrying about more hardware until the Buckeyes can avoid the Southeastern Conference.
Ohio State's compiled a long list of athletic accomplishments over the last decade. There have been Big Ten titles, No. 1 rankings, trips to the national championship game in both marquee sports. But for every triumph, there's been an equal disappointment. And each time the Buckeyes have come close to winning it all, it's crumbled in the face of a school from the SEC.
Has any league dished out more heartache to one athletic department?
Ranked No. 1 and tracking all season toward a national title, Ohio State's season ended abruptly in a 62-60 loss to No. 4 seed Kentucky. As the Wildcats advance to face No. 2 seed North Carolina in the East Regional final, the Buckeyes are left to ponder a long list of meltdowns against their geographic nemesis.
In the past five years alone, Ohio State's lost to Florida (2006) and LSU (2007) in the Bowl Championship Series title game, turning the school's football credibility into a punchline in the South. And while basketball doesn't drive the passions of either Ohio State or the SEC, the results have been just as one-sided.
The Buckeyes had perhaps the most talented team in school history in 2007, led by freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley, but they were overwhelmed in the national championship by Florida's drive for a second straight title.
That was excusable. The last two NCAA tournament flameouts are not.
With national Player of the Year Evan Turner, Ohio State had a clear path to the Final Four last March, needing only to beat a No. 6 and No. 5 seed. The Buckeyes never even got to the second game, losing to Tennessee 76-73 after they failed to execute down the stretch.
Surely, this would be the year for Ohio State to start evening the score.
The Buckeyes were 34-2, champions of the Big Ten, often dominant against the best teams in the country. They had 6-foot-9 center Jared Sullinger, the best freshman in the country, and a bevy of seniors who wouldn't disintegrate under tournament pressure. Ohio State was the best, most balanced team left in the tournament.
And still, it wasn't enough. Another Sweet 16 game against the SEC, another crushing loss.
“It hurts, just because we thought we could make a run at the championship,” senior guard Jon Diebler said. “By no means were we overlooking this team. They're very good, very talented. To win the games they won in the SEC, you have to tip your hat to them. Every team wants to finish in Houston, but you can't take away what we did this season.”
Actually, you can. Sure, it was close — very close — to going Ohio State's way this time. Despite shooting just 32.8 percent, the Buckeyes were right there all the way, trading leads with Kentucky deep into the second half.
And even with senior William Buford going 2 for 16, Sullinger getting thoroughly outplayed by unheralded Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson and the Wildcats blocking 11 shots, Ohio State had it all tied up at 60-60 when Diebler drained a three-pointer with 21.2 seconds remaining.
But in a wild finishing sequence, Ohio State saw misery once again as Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight pulled up from 18 feet and hit with 5.4 seconds left. Buford then launched a final three-pointer at the buzzer that went long.
“It was one of those games where we had a hard time putting the ball in the basket,” coach Thad Matta said. “It came down to a couple plays. It's an incredible season, an incredible run for these guys. We've never had a team like this.”
That should only make it all the more painful, as the Buckeyes ponder a lost chance at the national title and watch Kentucky now try to win it with a team that went 2-6 on the road in the SEC and needed some late buckets just to escape its first NCAA tournament game against Princeton.
With its massive TV contract, huge football stadiums and unmatched passion for college athletics, the SEC likes to claim superiority in everything. In the NCAA tournament, however, that hasn't been true recently.
Kentucky came to the East Regional last year for a coronation, with five first-round draft picks and a swagger that seemed invincible, carrying the banner for a conference that's had just four Final Four representatives since 1998.
The Wildcats' loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight was one of the most crushing results in John Calipari's career, second only to losing a nine-point lead with 2:16 left in the 2008 national championship game with Memphis.
Now, Kentucky's just one win from the Final Four with a team that only goes six deep and may not have a lottery pick.
On his radio show in Lexington last week, Calipari created a stir when he said Ohio State didn't merely want to beat the Wildcats, but actually wanted to “be us.”
Now we know that can't be true. To actually be Kentucky, the Buckeyes would have to play in the SEC. Clearly, they want no part of that.