Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
BOSTON – The Sweet 16 is nothing new for the Ohio State men’s basketball team.
For the third consecutive year, the Buckeyes have won their first two games in the NCAA Tournament and been one of the final 16 teams left dancing.
But the past two years, that’s where the journey has ended.
A 2010 loss to No. 6-seed Tennessee and a loss to No. 4-seed Kentucky the following year ended the Buckeyes’ seasons and all the promise associated with them.
After OSU’s victory over No. 7-seed Gonzaga in the third round of this year’s tournament, sophomore forward Jared Sullinger said the Buckeyes needed to “get over the hump.”
Thursday, OSU will try to do just that against in-state opponent Cincinnati.
But despite the schools being about 120 miles away from each other, this will be the programs’ fourth meeting in the last 50 years.
The Bearcats beat the Buckeyes in consecutive national championships in 1961 and 1962, but the two schools wouldn’t meet again for 44 years.
In 2006, when Mick Cronin was in his first year as Cincinnati coach, Greg Oden and the Buckeyes beat the Bearcats in Indianapolis, 72-50.
Cronin gets another crack at OSU coach Thad Matta’s squad in Boston Thursday, but said the two schools both being from Ohio didn’t matter much to him.
“We have a goal,” Cronin said. “We’re trying to win four more games and bring a championship back to Cincinnati. The fact that we’re playing Ohio State is a sidebar for us.”
The Bearcats beat No. 11-seed Texas and No. 3-seed Florida State on their way to the Sweet 16.
They’ve used a four-guard system to play pressure, physical defense, and as a team, force 11 turnovers a game.
The Buckeyes have struggled with pressure at times this season. In their opening tournament game against Loyola (MD), OSU had 18 turnovers in the face of Loyola’s three-quarter court pressure.
Matta said the Buckeyes will have to protect the ball better against Cincinnati.
“You’ve got to do a great job taking care of the basketball,” Matta said. “They’re a team, as all great teams do, they convert off their turnovers. I think it’s a game where it’s high communication.”
The one forward in Bearcats’ starting lineup is senior Yancy Gates. The Cincinnati-native averages 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and will likely match up against Sullinger.
The Buckeye big man said Gates provides a real threat to OSU.
“It’s going to be a physical match-up,” Sullinger said. “I believe he can shoot the basketball, so I’m going to have to guard him a little bit on the perimeter as well. And he can post up. He has a nice little mixture of moves down there.”
Gates is just one of four Bearcats that average double figures, though.
Sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick averages 14.3 points and senior guards Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright average 13.1 and 10.7 points, respectively.
Though the Bearcats made it to the Sweet 16, many still associate Cincinnati with its early season brawl against Xavier.
Four players from the team, including Gates, were suspended for the incident, but the team regrouped and has gone 21-7 since.
“I think it just sped up us finding our identity,” Gates said of the brawl. “We were struggling early in the season, but we knew we had good players and we knew we had the talent to do good things this season.
Some of those “good things” include quality wins against Syracuse, Marquette, and Georgetown and a run to the championship game of the Big East Tournament.
The Big East and the Big Ten aren’t known for being similar in their style of play, but Matta said that Big Ten play has helped in preparing his team against Cincinnati.
“Both are very, very physical type conferences,” Matta said. “In that regard, I think we’ll have a pretty good understanding of what it’s going to be like.”
The Bearcats and the Buckeyes will play at Boston’s TD Garden. Tip is 9:45 p.m.