OSU Hoops Team Makes Another Run At Final Four

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Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, center, attempts to pull down a rebound against Penn State's David Jackson, left, and Andrew Jones, right, during the first half of the men's basketball game on Tuesday, March 1. The game, which was the last home appearance of the season, included recognition for Penn State's five graduating seniors, including Jackson and Jones. Penn State lost the game 82-61 to the top-ranked Buckeyes.(Photo: pennstatelive (flickr))
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, center, attempts to pull down a rebound against Penn State's David Jackson, left, and Andrew Jones, right, during the first half of the men's basketball game on Tuesday, March 1. The game, which was the last home appearance of the season, included recognition for Penn State's five graduating seniors, including Jackson and Jones. Penn State lost the game 82-61 to the top-ranked Buckeyes.(Photo: pennstatelive (flickr))

The eyes of sports fans around the country are turning to crowded gyms and scribbled brackets this week with the tip-off of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Columbus is no exception.

John Diebler and the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes head into the tournament as the favorite to win their first national championship since 1960. They’re 32-2 and hold the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. They play Texas – San Antonio in the first round tonight, but many people are looking past that. Way past that, to the Final Four in Houston next month.

“This team has a lot of chemistry on and off the court, and I think that’s taken them a long way,” Bob Baptist said.

Baptist covers OSU hoops for the Columbus Dispatch. And he’s right: the team does have a lot of chemistry. It showed during a press conference this week when Baptist asked already-graduated forward Dallas Lauderdale about a ping-pong class he’s taking to stay eligible for the basketball team.

Lauderdale: “I’m enrolled in that.” Baptist: “How many hours is that?” Dallas: “I don’t know, enough to keep me able to play.” (laughter) John Diebler: “Dallas’ ping-pong isn’t where it needs to be in the locker room.” (laughter) Dallas: “The thing is, I have to work on my forehand. My backhand is killer, but my forehand isn’t too good.” (more laughter)

All joking aside, most people who cover the team say cohesiveness is the team’s biggest asset. That’s credited largely to the three senior starters – Diebler, Lauderdale and guard David Lighty – who’ve seen the team go from not playing in the tournament at all three years ago, to a first-round loss in 2009, to making the round of 16 last year.

“Losing in the first round, knowing how that felt, knowing we had a chance to put that game away and win it to advance propelled us to the next year and gave us motivation to get to the Sweet 16,” Lighty said. “And now we know we had a good chance to win that game and advance.”

And last year the Buckeyes did not have all-world freshman and national player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger.

While players say they are not looking too far ahead, fans are a little more quick to make predictions. At OSU’s main rec center, third-year student Jack Andrews is confident.

“I’m excited. They definitely have the best chance that I’ve seen in a long time,” Andrews said. “I’m really excited about Sullinger, and also all the experience with David Lighty and John Diebler. I picked them in my bracket; I think we’re going to win.”

Head Coach Thad Matta isn’t quite as confident, and for good reason: he was an assistant on the 1996 Western Carolina team that nearly shocked No. 1 seed Purdue in the first round that year. But he thinks he’s put this OSU team in a good position.

“Everything that we’ve seen throughout 34 games this year, we feel confident there’s nothing we can see that we haven’t seen before. We’re getting back to as much of the basics that we can, but knowing that at this juncture of this season you have to have trust and faith that guys will adjust on the fly,” Matta said.

Baptist sits somewhere between Matta and the fans.

“It’s one of those on-any-given-night type things, because if you catch Ohio State on a night when Diebler and Buford are making their jump shots, I don’t think anybody in the country can beat them,” Baptist said. “But if they’re cold from the field from outside, there are a lot of teams in the country that can beat them.”

One thing that might help OSU stay warm: tonight’s game is just a couple hours north of the Columbus campus, inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

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