Ohio State entered the season as one of the true national championship favorites. The Buckeyes had the best returning big man along with a well-rounded and talented roster.
Tonight, as a disappointing No. 2 seed, Ohio State went into battle with No. 1 seed Syracuse with a Final Four appearance on the line.
Ohio State had lofty expectations from the start. Syracuse seemed the team to beat for a large chunk of the season.
Both teams ultimately stumbled at times—Ohio State due to injury; Syracuse to ineligibility. One team would survive and advance. The other would leave Boston in disappointment.
In the end the Buckeyes squeezed the Orange by a score of 77-70. Here is what we learned.
Sullinger is full of spirit.
The numbers were impressive. In 26 minutes, Jared Sullinger scored 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 9-of-12 from the line.
He also grabbed six rebounds, blocked a shot and got a steal. But he needs to be measured by more than that. His presence on the floor opens things up for the rest of his teammates.
When he picked up his second foul with 13:43 remaining in the first half, the Buckeyes led 13-11. They were only outscored by two over the rest of the half, but the team went almost seven minutes without a field goal and shot just 23.5 percent the rest of the half.
With Sullinger on the court, Ohio State outscored Syracuse 61-52. He is a presence inside, and on the glass that can't be replaced.
Craft is arguably the nation's best defensive guard.
Aaron Craft fouled out of tonight's game with a line of five points, four assists, four rebounds and just one steal. He shot 1-of-3 from the field. He was a force to be reckoned with, though.
Craft doesn't need to score or even come up with steals to make an impact on the game. He is constantly disrupting everything opposing guards try to do.
He cuts off penetration, deflects passes, pokes the ball out and takes charges. He does this all game long and never stops.
Also, as the primary ball-handler against an opportunistic Syracuse defense, he only had two turnovers. Craft is arguably the most underrated point guard in the country.
The refs made themselves known tonight.
Referees are very rarely, if ever responsible for a team winning or losing any game. They didn't cost Syracuse tonight's game just like they didn't hand Ohio State the win. But they made their presence known tonight. A little too often.
Jared Sullinger, the best player on the floor, was out with foul trouble just six minutes into the game. Syracuse had two players foul out and three others with four personal fouls.
The way this game was called definitely affected the way the game was played. It was non-stop whistles and stoppages, and it is a credit to the level of talent on both teams that the game remained entertaining.
There is just no reason for 31 combined fouls to be called in the second half a regional final between two top-five teams. Ohio State went to the line 42 times while Syracuse took 25 free throws.
The players need to play and every touch foul away from the ball doesn't need to be called.
Melo blocks and alters shots like few others.
Ohio State could very well be the best team in college basketball. Many experts thought that coming into the season, and plenty of people still feel that way.
But Syracuse had a better season than the Buckeyes. The Orange won 34 out of their 36 games, won the Big East in dominating fashion and earned a No. 1 seed. But Syracuse wasn't at full strength at any point in this tournament.
Without Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fabricio Melo, Syracuse was at a serious disadvantage. Jared Sullinger had his way inside for most of the night and Melo could have changed that.
At 6'9", Sullinger isn't especially long or springy. Melo's superior height and length could have caused enough problems to change the game. At the very least, he would have given the Orange five more fouls and the ability to play more physical defense.
Thomas helps Sullinger with the heavy lifting.
Ohio State stumbled many times this season—seven to be exact. The Buckeyes were billed in the preseason as the nation's best team.
For the most part, Ohio State didn't represent that with its play on the court. They settled for a three-way tie for the Big Ten title with less talented teams in Michigan State and Michigan, losing the Big Ten tournament championship game to the Spartans.
Well now it's crunch time and Ohio State is showing its colors. Jared Sullinger can dominate the inside, and it doesn't end there.
Aaron Craft is a great distributor at the point, and he can score when needed. Deshaun Thomas is proving to be a star in his own right, scoring inside and outside and hitting the glass hard. Senior guard William Buford is yet another scorer who can hit the big shot.
Ohio State may be the most well-rounded team in college basketball, talented at each position in the starting five and possessing decent depth as well.
The Buckeyes won't be an easy out, no matter who they play.