The trip to the Final Four will be the second for Ohio State Coach Thad Matta, who reached the national championship game in 2007 when the ill-fated Greg Oden was his center. Oden left after his freshman season and became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Five injury-riddled seasons later, he was placed on waivers by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Sullinger’s freshman season ended a year ago in the round of 16. Maybe that was why he came back, or maybe the object lesson of Oden caused him to think twice before making the jump. Regardless of what it was, his return is the reason Ohio State has now won 31 games and will be playing on the season’s final weekend.
The shame in this game and this night is the sad ending for Syracuse. Perhaps the only thing more difficult to deal with than losing in the Elite Eight is losing in the national championship game. The Final Four has become such a Holy Grail for college basketball teams that those who fall one step short feel the pain of that defeat for years.
That will be especially true for this Syracuse team. It dealt with the scandal that forced out longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine in November; it dealt with Melo’s eligibility problems; it dealt with the controversy surrounding the positive drug tests from several years ago that were never acted upon. Boeheim and his players adopted an us-against-the-world approach and it worked remarkably well — until Saturday night.
“I want to give all the credit to Ohio State for beating us,” said Jardine, who was on the bench for the final four minutes of his college career. “I don’t want to say anything about the referees. Ohio State’s a great team. They deserve the credit.”
That’s exactly right. The Buckeyes were able to hang in without Sullinger to get to halftime tied at 29. Looking back, Boeheim wondered if that wasn’t where his team lost the game. “We just needed to be in better position than we were at halftime,” he said. “Ohio State played very good defense, but we missed some chances. Too many chances.”
No doubt Boeheim and his players will see those missed chances when they are staring at the ceiling late at night for a long time to come. There was no shame in this loss for Syracuse and there should be, as Jardine said, great credit given to the winners.
The shame is that two very good basketball teams spent a large chunk of the evening walking to the free throw line. The best team won the game. But Syracuse wasn’t the only team on the court Saturday that should walk away from this night with regrets about the way it performed.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.