CLEVELAND – College basketball has been waiting all season for a special team, one to step forward and announce itself as the one to beat.
A dominant team. A complete team. Perhaps, a championship team.
Well, that team may have finally arrived.
It's Ohio State.
After two blowout wins to open the NCAA tournament, the top-seeded Buckeyes may have separated from the pack and served notice to the rest of the field that this might be their year to hoist the championship trophy.
On Sunday, they thrashed a George Mason squad that never knew what hit it with a dazzling display of offensive firepower and defensive resolve — a 98-66 win that could have made worse.
When it was over, freshman center Jared Sullinger gave a teasing prediction. He believes the Buckeyes' best days are still ahead.
"We can play better," he said.
That's a very scary thought.
After being steamrolled by the Buckeyes, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga wasn't ready to crown the Buckeyes champs just yet.
"Well," he said. "If they play like they did today, it makes them a tough out."
Seeking its first national title since 1960, Ohio State advanced to play Kentucky (27-8) in the East regional semifinals Friday in Newark, N.J. The Buckeyes will be joined there by Marquette, which advanced to the round of 16 with a 66-62 win over Syracuse in a back-and-forth struggle between Big East brothers.
The 11th-seeded Golden Eagles (21-14) will face North Carolina (28-7) on Friday.
Although it may not have the blue-blooded pedigree of the other schools still alive in the region, Marquette's players feel as if they belong.
"All those teams are great, but I feel like we are just as good," said Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom, whose 3-pointer with 27 seconds left snapped a tie and sent the Golden Eagles into the round of 16 for the first time in eight years, when Dwyane Wade took them to the Final Four.
"We worked so hard during the offseason, preseason, to put ourselves in the position in the way we are now," he said. "When guys come out and play just as tough as ever and put it all on the line, then you're supposed to be in positions like this.
"Sweet 16 is for us."
Early in Ohio State's game with George Mason, the Buckeyes were trailing and appearing vulnerable. The Patriots were getting physical, talking trash and taking it right at the Big Ten champions — the team with no obvious weaknesses — and Sullinger, who had three quick turnovers.
That's when Sullinger bumped Patriots forward Ryan Pearson from behind and told him to watch out.
"It's over, yo," Sullinger said, waving his hands.
And it was, yo.
Cleveland native David Lighty, Ohio State's fourth-leading scorer, made all seven of his 3-pointers and scored 25 points, Sullinger and William Buford added 18 apiece and Ohio State made 16 3s in putting away the Patriots, who had dreams of making a deep run like the school did in 2006.
The Buckeyes would have none of it. They used their devastating inside-outside attack to post the most lopsided tournament victory in school history. Ohio State outscored George Mason 50-15 over the final 16 minutes of the first half.
It was a Cleveland clinic.
The Buckeyes had a 10-0 run, a 16-0 burst and made five 3-pointers over the final 5 minutes on the way to opening a 52-26 halftime lead.
"Every time I looked up everybody was hitting a jumper or a 3 or something," said Lighty, who earlier in the day received his diploma.
Freshman guard Aaron Craft came off the bench and sparked Ohio State with 15 assists, many of them to the wings as the Buckeyes finished 16 of 26 behind the arc. The Buckeyes shot 61 percent from the floor.
What makes Ohio State so tough is its versatility. If teams double-team Sullinger, he simply passes it out to Diebler, Buford, Craft and Lighty — Robin Hood's merry men didn't have such good aim. If teams take away the perimeter, the Buckeyes lob the ball inside to the 6-foot-9, 280-pound Sullinger, their round mound of resound.
"It's just very hard to guard," said George Mason's Cam Long. "You've got great shooters outside and you've also got power post men sitting in the block. So when you're trying to shut down one thing, they've got other things that open up. It's definitely a hard thing to guard."
When Marquette finally closed out Syracuse a few hours later, Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams, well, buzzed.
His bald head glistening with sweat, he leaped in the air and pounded his fists on the media table. He then shared tears and hugs with his family before slapping hands with band members and anyone he could touch wearing the Golden Eagles' gold and blue.
His beet-red face couldn't stop smiling as fans chanted his name and broke into the traditional "We are (clap-clap) Marquette!" cheer.
At the postgame news conference, Williams' voice cracked and he paused to collect his thoughts when he described his relationship with his wife.
"All the people that were here, they care just as much as I do," he said. "It just so happens that I get to speak on their behalf. It's not about me. It's about all those people, just as much as it is our players."
This was the second straight early exit for third-seeded Syracuse (27-8), which had 18 turnovers. The Orange were a No. 1 seed last year and lost in the round of 16 to Butler.
"It's tough," guard Scoop Jardine said. "This isn't how we wanted to end for our seniors. We had the game. We had it, man."