If Ohio State is going to win the national championship, the Buckeyes will have to go through some of the top schools in the history of the sport to do it.
The Buckeyes, the top seed in the East Region, advanced to this weekend’s Sweet 16 in Newark, N.J., with easy wins over 16th-seeded Texas-San Antonio (75-46) and eighth-seeded George Mason (98-66).
But the preliminaries are clearly over and any games the Buckeyes (34-2) play the rest of the way will be against some of the real bluebloods in college basketball. That stretch begins with Friday night’s regional semifinal against fourth-seeded Kentucky (27-8). That game is set for a 9:45 p.m. start and will be televised nationally by CBS.
No. 2 seed North Carolina (28-7) and No. 11 seed Marquette (22-14) will meet in Friday’s first East Region semifinal in Newark (7:15 p.m., CBS). The winners will then meet in a regional final Sunday for a spot in the Final Four, set for April 2-4 at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
“Welcome to the tournament,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “We’ve played some great basketball teams this year and Kentucky is right there at the top of them. We don’t want to change our mind-set. We have great respect for Kentucky and their players, their coaches and their program.
“The way all of those teams are playing right now, that's going to be a very, very challenging region.”
Matta also has to like the way his team is playing, too. His team had a businesslike approach in its first two games in Cleveland. OSU has won nine straight since dropping a pair of Big Ten road games at Wisconsin and Purdue in February.
“I think these guys have a heightened awareness, obviously, if you don't play well and you lose, the season's over,” Matta said. “I think that's one of the things that we have talked with them about. Just from the standpoint, as we started this tournament, you know you're sitting at 34 and 2. Things have gone really, really well. And, as I've said, I feel like with this team it's Oct. 15th.
“I mean, it's just how much we enjoy being around each other. So part of me in the back of my mind I want them thinking about, you know, there is a heightened awareness. I don't want them to ever play scared. If you spent a day with us, I think you'd have a real appreciation for just how close they are and how much it means, the success of this team means to everybody.”
As the top overall seed in the tournament, the Buckeyes figure to be the team everybody roots against in Newark. But Matta has taken this team into a number of tough environments this year.
“I think preparation is what we've done in going to Florida, going to Florida State and then nine games on the road in the Big Ten,” he said. “You know, I've seen this year some of the most hostile environments, and I think our guys have handled it well. It is what it is. I know we'll have our fans. We've got a great base out there. But we've got to do our job on the court, that's for sure.”
A year ago, second-seeded Ohio State made it to the Midwest Region semifinals but was upset by sixth-seeded Tennessee 76-73. Kansas, the one seed in the Midwest, had been knocked off already and OSU had a shot at a Final Four berth.
"I think last year's mind-set was that we were excited to be there," said OSU senior Dallas Lauderdale. "This time we're on a mission. The Sweet 16 is just a step on our mission."
"Coach told us we have to go in with a different mind-set than we did last year," said OSU senior Jon Diebler. "Last year we were excited to be in the Sweet 16. None of us had ever been there, and I think we bought into the hype."
Matta added, “It’s just a different mind-set than what we had last year. What it is, I don’t know. The biggest thing was whatever mind-set we had last year didn’t work, so we decided we needed to change it.”
The scary part is that freshman phenom Jared Sullinger – named The Sporting News national freshman of the year on Tuesday – believes the Buckeyes still have room for improvement.
“We can play better,” he said. “We’ve got another game on Friday with Kentucky, so we're focused on that. So we're trying to take this momentum from this game and carry it on to the next.”
Diebler said after watching Kentucky play on TV all these years it will be neat to be on the floor with the Wildcats on Friday.
“They have a lot of great players and a lot of great history,” Diebler said. “It will be fun.”
A regional where the teams have a combined 14 national championships? That sounds more like a Final Four, doesn’t it?
"It's going to be crazy," Lauderdale said.
NCAA Regional Notables
* As noted, the four teams in the East Region have a combined 14 national titles. That’s seven for Kentucky, five for UNC and one each for Marquette and Ohio State. That’s more titles in the other three regionals combined.
The teams in the West combine for seven with Duke (four), Connecticut (two) and Arizona (one). Kansas (three titles) is the only past champion in the depleted Southwest. Florida (two) and Wisconsin (one) are past champions in the Southeast.
* Ohio State was among seven Big Ten teams in the field of 68. So far, the Big Ten has posted a 7-5 record with just OSU and Wisconsin (fourth seed in the Southeast) advancing to the Sweet 16. Wisconsin faces eighth-seeded Butler in a regional semi Thursday night in New Orleans.
The ACC had three teams advance to the Sweet 16. The SEC, Big East and Mountain West joined the Big Ten with two teams in the Sweet 16. The Pac-10, Big 12, Atlantic-10, Colonial Athletic and the Horizon each have one school in the Sweet 16.
* Ohio State, the Big Ten regular season champion and the conference tournament champion, is making its 27th NCAA Tournament appearance.
Ohio State is 47-25 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including 10 Final Four appearances and the 1960 national championship. OSU’s 1999 Final Four trip was vacated due to NCAA sanctions, but even with that total reduced to nine the school is still sixth among all Division I schools in Final Fours. The Buckeyes trail only North Carolina (18), UCLA (18), Duke (15), Kansas (13) and Kentucky (13).
This is OSU’s fifth NCAA trip in six seasons under Matta. Under Matta, OSU is 10-4 in NCAA Tournament games. Matta guided the 2007 OSU team to the national championship game before it lost to defending national champion Florida.
Matta has now taken nine of his 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. He has an all-time record of 16-8 in the tournament. (The 2005 OSU team was ineligible and the 2008 OSU team went to the NIT.)
Including a 25-5 record in conference tournaments and a 5-0 mark in the 2008 NIT, Matta’s all-time postseason record is 46-13 (.780).
* In 11 years as a college head coach, Matta’s teams are 60-14 all-time in the month of March. That includes a 37-9 mark in seven years at OSU.
* Since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, this marks the sixth time in 26 years that Ohio State has made it to the Sweet 16 and third time in five years under Matta. The Buckeyes are 3-2 in that stretch in regional semifinal games with a loss to St. John’s in 1991, wins over North Carolina in 1992, Auburn in 1999 and Tennessee in 2007 and a loss to Tennessee last year.
After those three wins, OSU posted a 2-1 mark in regional finals. The Buckeyes fell to Michigan in 1992 and defeated St. John’s in 1999 and Memphis in 2007.
All-time, this is Ohio State’s 18th appearance in the final 16 of the NCAA. It should be noted, though, that the tournament only had eight teams for each of OSU’s first five appearances (between 1939-50). The field was widened to anywhere from 23 to 25 teams when the Buckeyes made the final 16 five times between 1960 and ’71. It was up to 48 teams when the Buckeyes reached the final 16 in 1980 and 1983.
* Obviously, Syracuse fans had purchased a number of tickets for the East Regional by assuming their Orange would easily sweep into the Sweet 16. But Big East rival Marquette upset third-seeded Syracuse on Sunday.
Fan support should be evenly split. Here are the distances in miles from Newark for each school attending the East Regional: Kentucky (Lexington), 700 miles; Ohio State (Columbus), 525; Marquette (Milwaukee), 875; and North Carolina (Chapel Hill), 500.
* The East Regional will be played in the Prudential Center in downtown Newark. The arena opened in 2007 and is the home of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils as well as the Seton Hall college basketball team. It is also the temporary home of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets until they move into the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2012.
The Prudential Center seats 18,711 for basketball and was built at a cost of $375 million.
The arena is located two blocks from Newark Penn Station in downtown Newark, just west of Newark's Ironbound district, making it easily accessible via New Jersey Transit, PATH, Newark Light Rail and Amtrak.
Both sessions in Newark (Friday’s semifinals and Sunday’s finals) are sold out. On Stubhub.com, tickets for Friday’s session are selling for $239-$2,240. Tickets for Sunday’s regional final are selling for $112 and up. All-session tickets are going for $345 to $2,650.
* The East Regional games will be televised nationally by CBS with Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg calling the action.
* Here is the NCAA Tournament schedule of games this weekend:
Thursday – West Region (at Anaheim, Calif.): San Diego State (2) vs. Connecticut (3), 7:15 p.m. (CBS); Duke (1) vs. Arizona (5), 9:45 p.m. (CBS). Southeast Region (at New Orleans): Florida (2) vs. BYU (3), 7:27 p.m. (TBS); Wisconsin (4) vs. Butler (8), 9:57 p.m. (TBS).
Friday – East Region (at Newark, N.J.): Marquette (11) vs. North Carolina (2), 7:15 p.m. (CBS); Ohio State (1) vs. Kentucky (4), 9:45 p.m. (CBS). Southwest Region (at San Antonio): Kansas (1) vs. Richmond (12), 7:27 p.m. (TBS); VCU (11) vs. Florida State (10), 9:57 p.m. (TBS).
Saturday – Southeast and West regional finals, 4:20 or 6:55 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday – East and Southwest regional finals, 2:10 or 4:55 p.m. (CBS)
Kentucky (4th seed)
* Location: Lexington, Ky.
* Nickname: Wildcats
* Record, Ranking: 27-8 overall, 10-6 SEC; ranked 11th in AP poll.
* RPI: Sixth
* Sagarin Rating: 12th
* Best Wins: Florida (twice, 8 in RPI), Notre Dame (9 in RPI), Louisville (17 in RPI).
* Bad Losses: Mississippi (83 in RPI), Arkansas (124 in RPI).
* Top Players: G Brandon Knight, 6-3, fr. (17.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.2 apg); F Terrence Jones, 6-8, fr. (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.9 bpg); G Doron Lamb, 6-4, fr. (12.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G Darius Miller, 6-7, jr. (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg).
* Also Notable: Kentucky is one of the hottest teams around with eight straight wins and victories in 10 of its last 11 games. The Wildcats, led by the freshman threesome of Knight, Lamb and Jones, have come of age at the right time for coach John Calipari … Knight had the game-winning layup with two seconds left in UK’s NCAA-opening win over Princeton (59-57). Knight then had a career-high 30 points as UK rallied from down eight at halftime to defeat West Virginia 71-63 in the third round … UK will be playing to try and reach the Elite Eight for an NCAA-record 33rd time … Kentucky shoots 39 percent from three-point range (12th best nationally) and holds opponents to 39 percent shooting … Amazingly, Ohio State has been to two Final Fours since Kentucky’s last appearance there in 1998, when the Wildcats won their last national title.
* Series With Ohio State: Kentucky leads the all-time series with Ohio State 10-9, although the teams have not played since December 1996 (an 81-65 UK win in Cleveland). OSU is a perfect 5-0 against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Their last NCAA meeting was in 1987 (a 91-77 OSU win).
North Carolina (2nd seed)
* Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
* Nickname: Tar Heels
* Record, Ranking: 28-7, 14-2 ACC; ranked seventh in AP poll
* RPI: 7th
* Sagarin Rating: 15th
* Best Wins: Duke (4 in RPI), Kentucky (6 in RPI).
* Bad Losses: Minnesota (84 in RPI), Georgia Tech (169 in RPI).
* Top Players: F Tyler Zeller, 7-0, jr., (15.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg); F Harrrison Barnes, 6-8, fr. (15.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F John Henson, 6-10, so. (11.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg); G Dexter Strickland, 6-3, so. (7.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg).
* Also Notable: UNC had four losses by mid-December. But coach Roy Williams gradually put the pieces together and the Tar Heels ended up knocking off Duke in the regular season finale to win the outright ACC regular season title. Duke avenged that loss a week leader in the ACC title game, but that is UNC’s only loss in its last 12 games … Henson had 28 points and 11 rebounds in UNC’s NCAA-opening win over Long Island. UNC then had to battle back from down 11 to defeat Washington in the third round (86-83). Zeller had 23 points and Barnes had 22 in that win … This is UNC’s fourth Sweet 16 in five years. The Tar Heels have won two titles in seven previous years under Williams (2005, 2009).
* Series With Ohio State: Ohio State is 2-10 all-time against North Carolina. The last meeting was in December 2009 (a 77-73 UNC win at Madison Square Garden). OSU is 1-4 against UNC in the NCAA Tournament, but won the last meeting in a 1992 regional semifinal (80-73 at Lexington, Ky.).
Marquette (11th seed)
* Nickname: Golden Eagles
* Record, Ranking: 22-14 overall, 9-9 Big East; unranked.
* RPI: 63rd
* Sagarin Rating: 29th
* Best Wins: Notre Dame (9 in RPI), Connecticut (14 in RPI), Syracuse (twice, 19 in RPI).
* Bad Loss: Seton Hall (102 in RPI).
* Top Players: G Jimmy Butler, 6-7, sr. (15.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg); G Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2, jr. (16.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Jae Crowder, 6-7, jr. (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg); G Dwight Buycks, 6-3, sr. (9.1. ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg).
* Also Notable: It’s already been a great tournament for Marquette, which dominated sixth-seeded Xavier (66-55) and nipped Big East rival Syracuse (66-62) last weekend in Cleveland. Johnson-Odom had 19 points in the win over Xavier. He then hit the go-ahead three with 27 seconds left and finished with 17 in the win over Syracuse … Buzz Williams is in his third year after replacing Tom Crean, who left for Indiana … Marquette’s national title came in 1977 under the legendary Al Maguire. Crean led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four behind the play of Dwyane Wade.
* Series With Ohio State: OSU is 5-4 all-time against Marquette. The last meeting was on Nov. 30, 1994, (82-70 Marquette win in Columbus). OSU won the teams’ only previous meeting in the NCAA Tournament (1971, 60-59).
Click here for video of Coach Matta from Wednesday.
Click here for video with David Lighty and Jared Sullinger from Wednesday.