After being absent from the national spotlight for decades, the Ohio State Buckeyes have advanced to the Final Four for the second time in the last six seasons, and with this success, they have firmly entrenched themselves as one of the country's elite programs. But for this squad, simply getting this far is not enough.
"We're not going down to New Orleans for a vacation," said forward Jared Sullinger, who became the first player in three years to repeat as First Team AP All-American. "It's a business trip."
Taking care of business is exactly what Sullinger had in mind when he decided to return to the Buckeyes for his sophomore season. After a fantastic freshman campaign, many projected him to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft, but instead of leaving campus for the pros after one great season like many of his contemporaries have done, he came back for a chance at the ultimate prize - a championship.
In the 2010-11 campaign, Ohio State dominated wire-to-wire, going 32-2 in the regular season and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Its championship hopes came to a screeching halt however in the Sweet 16, when it suffered a disappointing loss to the fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats.
This season, despite falling short of expectations in the Big Ten (13-5) and losing to Michigan State in the conference championship game, Ohio State is playing some of its best basketball of the season at the best time, with wins over Loyola Maryland, Gonzaga, Cincinnati, and top-seeded Syracuse in the East Region to move on to the Big Easy to face fellow two-seed Kansas in the National Semifinals.
Though Ohio State has played in a total of 10 Final Fours in its program's history, only two of those appearances have come since 1968, and of all four remaining teams, OSU has had the longest drought between championships, winning its only title way back in 1960.
One of the biggest reasons for the Buckeyes' turnaround is thanks to head coach Thad Matta, who has led the team to at least a share of the Big Ten title in five of his eight seasons and he guided the program to the National Title Game game in 2007 before falling to defending champion Florida, 84-75. Matta is surely seeking redemption this time around, and trusts that this group of players is the right fit to do so.
"I think the thing that makes me the most proud is these guys keep getting better," said Matta. "This team is still so young, and we're still trying to learn what gets them going. I've kind of enjoyed that challenge because they've been receptive to what we've asked them to do."
Matta is no stranger to young teams. His 2007 Final Four squad was led by super-freshmen and future NBA players Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., and Daequan Cook. Though that team's talent was never in question, its experience just could not compete with that of a veteran Gator team.
But while Matta describes this season's team as young, it is far from inexperienced, as the entire starting five - sophomores Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and senior William Buford - have all gone through the highs of dominating the regular season and the lows of being upset in the tournament.
If this team wants to hoist its first NCAA Tournament trophy in 52 years, it will need to keep up with its well rounded style of basketball. It's been getting fantastic guard play from William Buford (14.4 ppg) all season, and when he struggled against Syracuse in the Elite Eight by shooting just 3-of-12 from the floor, Smith Jr. stepped up his game by pouring in 18 points. In addition to great offense from the perimeter, the Buckeyes also play fantastic defense, led by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Craft and his school-record 88 steals this season.
Just as integral to Ohio State's success is the production in the paint by its fantastic forward duo of Sullinger (17.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and Thomas (16.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg). The importance of the front court play in Saturday's matchup against Kansas cannot be overstated, as Sullinger and Thomas will need to keep up with the Jayhawks' twin towers Thomas Robinson (17.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and Jeff Withey (9.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.5 bpg) for its best chance of winning.
Sullinger got into foul trouble early in the Syracuse game, relegating him to the bench for the final 13 minutes of the first half. Surely, committing fouls and riding the pine early against Kansas will be a recipe for disaster for the Ohio State front court, but Sullinger believes the Buckeyes have the right defensive mind set to win regardless of the scenario.
"These guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do," said Sullinger. "We just kept competing on the defense end [against Syracuse]. I'm just so proud of these guys."
Regardless of the outcome this weekend, coach Matta knows that a trip back to the Final Four is an extremely positive thing for the team and the university, but having tested the waters once before, nothing would be sweeter than cutting down the nets in New Orleans.
"I'm excited," said Matta. "I think six years ago I probably didn't enjoy the moment as much as I wanted to or needed to. But truth be told, I probably won't enjoy this one either, and we'll get down there and try to play our best basketball."