Ohio State expected to be here. The Buckeyes have been among the top ranked teams in the country for the entire season. Not so much for Cincinnati. As junior guard Cashmere Wright says, “if you could take a poll at the beginning of the season, no one really expected us to get this far. “ But the Bearcats are here in Boston play the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s not like the Bearcats have shocked the world by being here. The team showed improvement throughout the season, culminating with a win over Syracuse in the Big East tournament and a spot in the conference championship game. Still, respect has been hard to find. “We have been underdogs to teams we beat three years in a row,” said U.C. senior guard Dion Dixon. “We’re used to it and we don’t pay any attention to it.”
What does get the Bearcats attention is the next opponent on the schedule. Ohio State (29-7) is a battled tested bunch from a Big Ten conference that has matched the Big East with four teams in the Sweet 16.
Sophomore Jared Sullinger is the headliner. The 6-9 Ohio State sophomore averages 17 points and 9 rebounds a game. Sullinger will matchup with U.C.’s Yancy Gates in a highly anticipated matchup. Even Gates is looking forward to it and said, “I play basketball because I like different challenges, and this is going to be a different one.” Sullinger sees it the same way. The two big men met on the floor once in high school. Sullinger has noticed a different Gates, especially since coming back from a six game suspension earlier this season. “He really changed his game around. He really is about the team and it really shows with his demeanor,” said Sullinger. “He’s playing hard. He’s playing fantastic for them right now.”
The battle of the big men may the marquee matchup but there will be battles all over the floor. Both big men are surrounded by talent. Ohio State has the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in guard Aaron Craft. “He’s really good at stripping the ball and he’s really good at playing his man on the ball,” said U.C. sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick. Then there is Buckeyes forward Deshaun Thomas. He scored 31 points in the NCAA tournament opener against Loyola Maryland. William Buford had 29 points in a game earlier this season and Lenzelle Smith had 28 in a game against Indiana. The Buckeyes can come at you from all angles.
The Bearcats feel they can do the same, with a confidence that is bolstered by 9 wins over teams that were ranked in the Top 25. “We know we got talent in here and we know we can beat anybody,” said Dixon. “We can play with anybody in the country as long as we come and do our job.”
The last time these two schools met in tournament play was the 1962 Championship game. Cincinnati won it 72-59. The Bearcats expect a closer outcome this time. “They’re a great team. They have guys that can score and they can also play defense,” said Kilpatrick. “It’s going to be a grind it out game.”