A trip to the Final Four is on the line this evening at TD Garden in Boston, as top-seeded Syracuse battles the No. 2 seed Ohio State in the East Regional Final of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse escaped a dogged performance from fourth-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday, needing a defensive stop on the game's final possession to pull out a 64-63 triumph. The Badgers kept the game close throughout on the strength of a staggering 14 three-pointers, nine of those in the second half. Wisconsin nailed back-to-back threes to stem an 8-1 Orange run nearing the midpoint of the second half and proceeded to drain its next five from downtown to gain a 56-53 edge late in the action. The game remained tight from there and Syracuse got a pair of clutch baskets from sophomore Dion Waiters for a three-point cushion just before the game's final sequence. Coming out of a timeout, the Badgers had 15 seconds remaining to get off a potential game-winner but Jordan Taylor's contested three-ball fell short. Sophomore C.J. Fair stepped up with 15 points to lead the 'Cuse while adding seven rebounds and four steals. Senior Scoop Jardine had 14 points, Waiters netted 13 and junior Brandon Triche chipped in with 11. Overall, Syracuse shot 55.1 percent from the field and connected on 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. UW was 14-of-27 from three-point range (.519) but shot just 42.9 percent overall.
Syracuse (34-2) is making its first appearance in the Elite Eight since its run to the National Championship back in 2003. This year's odyssey began with an opening-round 72-65 victory over 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville, setting a single- season record for wins in the process. The Orange then handled a dangerous No. 8 seed in Kansas State by way of a 75-59 final to reach Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with Wisconsin. Syracuse has advanced to the Final Four on four different occasions in this, the program's 35th all-time appearance in the Big Dance -- 29 of those trips coming under the tutelage of Naismith Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. This is the third time Syracuse has donned the status of a No. 1 seed in the tournament, having earned that right in two of the last three seasons. The Orange were a No. 3 seed as an at-large team in the 2011 tourney, falling to Marquette in the Sweet 16. The Orange now stand at 56-34 all-time in this event.
Ohio State showed tremendous resolve in taking down sixth-seeded Cincinnati on Thursday, first blowing a 12-point halftime lead before notching an 81-66 runaway win on the heels of a back-breaking 17-1 surge. The Buckeyes held UC to 38.5 percent shooting in the first half on their way to a comfortable 37-25 lead at the break. However, the Bearcats emerged from the locker room determined and went on a 19-4 spurt to take a four-point lead approaching the midway point of the second half. Ohio State's defense took over from there, holding the Bearcats to just a single free throw over the next five-plus minutes to earn its first trip to the Elite Eight since the program's run to the 2007 NCAA Final. Sophomores Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas combined for 49 points as OSU connected on 45.6 percent of its field goal attempts. Sullinger went for 23 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, while Thomas poured in a game-best 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Fellow sophomore Aaron Craft tallied all 11 of his points in the second half while adding six steals and five assists. Lenzelle Smith, Jr. stepped up as well with 15 points as OSU erased the memory of back-to-back ousters in the round of 16.
Getting past that point seems to be the trick for the Buckeyes, who have made 10 previous appearances in the Elite Eight with all but one instance resulting in a victory. Ohio State's (30-7) overall tourney ledger now stands at 44-22 in a total of 24 appearances. OSU has reached the NCAA Championship Game four times, winning their lone national title way back in 1960. The program most recently played for the title in 2007, losing to Florida. This year's club began its journey through the bracket with a 78-59 win over No. 15 seed Loyola- Maryland. The Buckeyes went on to dispatch a gritty No. 7 seed in Gonzaga via a 73-66 decision to land Thursday's matchup with Cincinnati.
The Buckeyes hold a 4-1 edge in the all-time series against the Orange. The most recent meeting was in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden where OSU topped No. 21 Syracuse, 79-76, on Nov. 21 2007. These programs also have a bit of history at the NCAA Tournament with the Buckeyes logging a 79-74 second-round victory back in 1983.
It's no surprise that the Orange represent one of the most balanced and well- rounded teams in the tournament after securing the second overall seed behind Kentucky. Syracuse ranks sixth in the country in scoring margin at plus-13.7, boasting the Big East's second-ranked offense (74.2 ppg) and third-ranked defense (60.6 ppg). Along those same lines, Syracuse shoots a league-high 46.8 percent from the field while holding the opposition to a mere 38.5 percent -- good for second in the Big East. The Orange have been able to clear a huge hurdle thus far in the tournament, advancing without the services of sophomore Fab Melo, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA on the eve of the tournament due to his academics. Melo took a huge step forward this season, earning Big East Defensive Player of the Year accolades for posting a team-high 5.8 rebounds and ranking second in the conference with 2.9 blocks. Melo added 7.8 ppg and stands second in the conference in field-goal percentage (56.6 percent). Meanwhile, senior Kris Joseph is at the head of the Orange scoring attack, averaging 13.5 ppg while dropping a team-high 51 three-pointers on 34.9 percent shooting. Joseph was held to seven points on 3-of-8 shooting versus the Badgers. Waiters, Big East Sixth Man of the Year, is just as valuable in providing 12.7 ppg as a reserve, shooting 48.1 percent from the floor with 1.8 steals per game. The rest of the Orange will have to continue to step up in the absence of Melo with experienced scorers Triche (9.2 ppg), Jardine (8.8 ppg) and Fair (8.5 ppg) in the fold. Junior James Southerland has also been a nice surprise off the bench thus far in tournament play, posting 15 points against both UNC-Asheville and Kansas State despite playing just four minutes versus UW. Southerland averages 6.9 ppg on the year.
The Buckeyes certainly made their presence felt in the Big Ten Conference this year, and carry the nation's second-ranked scoring margin at plus-15.6 behind only the tourney's top overall seed Kentucky. Ohio State stands second in the conference in scoring (75.0 ppg) and third in defense (59.4 ppg) -- a mark that also ranks in the top-20 nationally. The Buckeyes are in the top-20 in shooting percentage as well, landing 48.2 percent of their field goal attempts, while yielding a stingy .406 shooting percentage from opponents -- good for third in the conference. OSU also has the league's second-best rebounding margin at plus-7.7, but is generally pretty poor when it comes to three-point shooting. The Buckeyes had the least amount of threes in the Big Ten heading into their matchup with Cincinnati, and shoot just 33.3 percent overall from beyond the arc. OSU turned the tables on those numbers versus the Bearcats, sinking 8- of-17 from downtown (.471). Sullinger is at the heart of the Buckeyes' success, averaging 17.6 ppg, 9.2 rebounds and connecting on 53.0 percent of his total shots. Sullinger's scoring and rebounding totals place him third and second, respectively, in the Big Ten while Thomas and senior William Buford give the club three of the league's top-16 scorers. Thomas contributes in a number of ways, netting 16.2 ppg on 53.4 percent shooting with 5.3 rpg and 49 three- pointers on 36.0 percent shooting. Buford puts up 14.4 ppg and leads the team with 58 triples on 35.6 percent accuracy, though he was held to just four points on 1-of-8 shooting against Cincinnati. Craft ranks third in the conference with his 4.7 assists per game and adds 8.9 ppg to the mix on a crisp 50.9 percent shooting. Craft also tops the Big Ten with 2.5 steals per contest, having set the single-season school record with his 88th theft in the recent win over Gonzaga.