Commentary

OSU heads to NOLA the hard way

Originally Published: March 24, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- With a staff member steadying him, Thad Matta carefully and slowly stepped up the rungs of the ladder, taking extra care with his left foot, the one rendered numb and useless by back surgery gone awry.

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThad Matta will make his second trip to the Final Four with the Buckeyes.

The climb to snip the last piece of net was not easy for the Ohio State coach, but eventually Matta got there.

The same could be said for his team.

A group that everyone figured would ride Easy Street to the Final Four after Jared Sullinger announced he was returning for his sophomore season instead took a long detour on the Highway to Hell, exasperating their coach so much that in late February he tossed them all out of practice.

But ladders are built with steps for a reason: to allow people to slowly reach heights they would not otherwise realize.

Step by step, the Buckeyes climbed their way out of the abyss and a team that most folks wrote off a month ago now stands only a few rungs from the top.

Ohio State beat top-seeded Syracuse, 77-70, to join Louisville in New Orleans for the Final Four. Making their first national semifinal appearance since 2007, the Buckeyes will meet either North Carolina or Kansas.

"It's not supposed to be easy," Sullinger said. "We took our lumps late in the season, iced them down and put up our guard. Now here we are."

Nobody took more lumps this year than Syracuse, a team beset by scandal and controversy from season's beginning to season's end.

Ultimately, it was not the absence of Fab Melo or the aftereffects of either the Bernie Fine charges or the NCAA investigation that did in the Orange.

Syracuse lost because its offense could not match its defensive prowess. In a season where Jim Boeheim always could find the hot hand, there simply wasn't one to be found.

"We fought all year but this time they came up big and we didn't," said a sobbing Scoop Jardine. "Losing hurts but what hurts the most is that I won't be able to go to practice with these guys tomorrow, that I'll never play with them again. Everyone says college is the best time of your life. Well, these last five years were the best of my life."

The draw of college coupled with unfinished business is what lured Sullinger back to Ohio State. He is, assistant coach Jeff Boals said, ''a kid who just loves college," and Sullinger is just that -- a great big kid trapped in a prodigious talent.

While the Buckeyes gathered on the court to cut down the nets, Sullinger couldn't sit still, giddily jumping around, a smile as wide as his cheeks would allow spreading across his face.

It was a very different scene when the big man insisted he'd return for his sophomore season. With seniors David Lighty and Jon Diebler sobbing nearby after the Buckeyes lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Sullinger sat on a training table in a locker room in Newark and said he'd be back.

No one believed him.

"I didn't believe it," athletic director Gene Smith said. "He's a lottery pick, maybe top five. I didn't believe it at all."

But Sullinger meant it and his commitment never wavered, not from that moment and all through the NBA draft and not from the start of this season through the low times in February.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Michael Ivins/US PresswireJared Sullinger asserted himself in the second half, scoring a game-high 19 points.

"With the tools we had, I knew we had a chance," he said. "I never thought twice about it. Never."

No one would have blamed him if he'd at least waffled in January when the Buckeyes lost to Illinois, or in February when they swapped wins with losses for two consecutive weeks.

Sullinger called his team 'spoiled brats' after it lost to Michigan State and uncharacteristically moaned publicly about how officials were -- or, more accurately, weren't -- calling games.

The nadir hit after a humbling home loss to Wisconsin. At the next practice, Matta tossed them all out of the gym.

Satch Sullinger knew what was going on. A lifelong coach, he can spy trouble inside a locker room from his sofa and he knew that his son's team needed a come-to-Jesus moment.

But he also taught his son that troubles need to stay in house.

"I'm not part of that circle anymore and he shouldn't have come to me," Satch said. "He's had a pretty easy go this year. It's the first year he's really had to deal with controversy, media questioning him and his numbers. He had no choice but to grow up or back up. He grew up."

Sullinger, as well as his teammates, chose wisely.

Following the Wisconsin loss, Aaron Craft brought the Buckeyes together for a player meeting, reminding them that despite their record all of their goals -- a Big Ten regular-season title, a Big Ten tournament title, a Final Four berth, a national championship -- were still reachable.

"We had to do some soul searching," Craft said. "We definitely went through a rough patch there where we lost three of five. I don't think any of us had really dealt with that before playing basketball."

The Buckeyes have lost exactly one game since that moment, the epic battle with Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament title game. They roll to New Orleans easily playing their best basketball of the season.

This Elite Eight game will not go in any basketball beauty books. Overzealous officials whistled the two teams for a combined 49 fouls, taking any and all offensive flow out of the game.

[+] EnlargeLenzelle Smith Jr.
Michael Ivins/US PresswireLenzelle Smith Jr. was 3 of 6 from behind the arc and scored 18 points Saturday night.

The Buckeyes did not shoot particularly well -- 41 percent from the floor and 31 from the arc; they turned it over 11 times and played the better part of the first half down a starter and a half. Sullinger played but six minutes, dinged with foul trouble, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. played with one eye, needing three stitches to close a gash above his eyebrow.

"Me and Aaron have a tough meter and he got me last week with a black eye," Smith said. "I know he can't top this."

Yet in a game where it would have been easy to fold, Ohio State did the opposite. The Buckeyes rallied, somehow staying afloat to keep the game knotted at the half despite the absence of Sullinger and then asserting themselves in the second half, feeding Sullinger for six points to build a 10-point lead.

The Orange put together a trademark run to pull within 55-54 on a Brandon Triche 3-pointer. But then the Buckeyes went back to Sullinger and the big man delivered again, sinking a jump hook and three of four free throws.

"We got Sullinger in foul trouble early and we didn't take advantage of it," Boeheim said. "You know when he comes back in he's going to be difficult and he was, but the first half got away from us. We got 10 down, we made an unbelievable comeback, got it to one. All year we've been able to make a play in that situation, and we just didn't."

Instead the Orange quietly shuffled off the court and into the offseason, watching the Buckeyes don their new Final Four gear and dodging crews setting up the makeshift stage for Ohio State and carting out the ladders.

It would be a little while before Matta, the last to climb, took his turn to the roar of Ohio State fans.

"You noticed I had guys to catch me," Matta said. "They know. I have no balance. They were there to catch me in case I fell."

Matta didn't and neither did his team.

The coach didn't, however, climb all the way to the top of the ladder.

He stopped a few steps short of the highest rung.

There are, after all, still two more games to be played.

Dana O'Neil | email

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