PITTSBURGH -- The copiers had just stopped churning out box scores and the fans had barely made it to the exits before Ohio State’s honeymoon officially ended.
There should have been more time. The Buckeyes had just eliminated a Gonzaga team that authoritatively put to bed any notion that West Coast hoops is soft, winning 73-66 on Saturday.
In a kinder world, Ohio State would have been able to savor the moment of the victory.
The Buckeyes do not live in a kind world. They live in the real world and in their reality, they will head to Boston for the East Regional packing their uniforms, sneakers, warm-ups and King Kong.
The gorilla is getting cozy on the Buckeyes’ back now, courtesy of yet another trip to their unhappy place, the Sweet 16. In 2010, No. 2-seeded Ohio State lost to sixth-seeded Tennessee and last year, No. 4 seed Kentucky eliminated the heavily favored and top-seeded Buckeyes in the regional semifinal.
“We gotta get past it, it’s that simple,’’ star big man Jared Sullinger said. “The last two years, we’ve been stopped short. We have to move beyond it. That’s it.’’
As recently as two months ago, Ohio State looked like anything but a smart pick for March success. After they lost to Illinois, the Buckeyes were lost in the black hole of dysfunction. Sullinger publicly questioned his team’s chemistry, saying, "We’ve got to like each other on the basketball court," and guard Aaron Craft echoed the sentiments, arguing, "One of the big things we need to do is find a way to play together."
Bad got worse in February, with Ohio State dropping three games in two weeks, a losing streak that ultimately would allow for a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten regular season.
But before the season slid off into the abyss, the Buckeyes stopped bad from becoming awful. There was no great Kumbaya moment as much as there was a realization that this is a very talented team and the players were in danger of ruining it for themselves.
Ohio State reeled off five consecutive wins to finish the season, losing only in an incredibly well-played Big Ten tournament title game against Michigan State, and entered the NCAA tournament on a mission.
But now that the Buckeyes are here, on the doorstep of their Waterloo, how do they know they can change their fate?
Ironically the Buckeyes say it is because of the earlier turmoil that they now are more equipped than ever before to avoid a premature exit.
“We’re more battle-tested,’’ Sullinger said. “We’ve had our bumps and bruises this year and that’s only made us stronger.’’
Perhaps most importantly the Buckeyes have learned they can no longer be a one-note song. Other players bristled then and still bristle now at the notion that this team revolves solely around Sullinger.
“Is that what they say?” William Buford asked. “That’s probably because that’s the only name they hear in the media.’’
But the fact is, until recently if Sullinger didn’t go, neither did Ohio State. Teams would double Sullinger, begging someone else to score and too often, no one answered the call.
The Buckeyes’ game against Gonzaga served as a microcosm of what has made Ohio State look more dangerous now than it did a year ago.
The Zags concentrated hard on Sullinger with decent success. The big man played just nine minutes in the first half, thanks to foul trouble, but still had eight points. In the second, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris limited him to only three field goals.
And in response, three other Ohio State players hit double figures, most critically Craft.
The point guard picked apart the Zags’ defense so deftly -- he had 10 assists -- coach Mark Few was forced to go zone.
Craft responded by sinking shot after shot, 7 of 9 in all for 18 points and his first double-double of the season.
“We just decided that he needed to score, and we were going to dedicate some of our attention to some other people,’’ Few said. “That allowed him to get the corner a couple of times because we were worried about [DeShaun] Thomas and Sullinger.’’
Now Ohio State is becoming a scouting nightmare. Whom do you worry about?
Against Loyola (Md.) in the opening round, Sullinger had only 12 points and Craft just eight, six of which came at the free throw line.
Instead Thomas had 31.
“You know I think a lot of people thought we were just Jared Sullinger,’’ Thomas said. “We’re not. People like me, Aaron, all of us -- we can score. People are starting to realize they can’t underestimate us.’’