Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
BOSTON – You would have thought Buckeye Nation was already on Bourbon Street after Ohio State’s 77-70 victory against Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
Players and coaches were hugging, new Final Four T-shirts and hats were draped all over the players, coach Thad Matta’s daughters were dancing with the cheerleaders and there was more smiling than a 6-year-old’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
It was like a scene from a movie right before everything goes black and “They lived happily ever after,” flashes across the screen.
Now flashback to Feb. 26.
OSU just lost to Wisconsin, 63-60, at home and the team was in disarray.
In a 15-day period, OSU lost three out of five games, matching their total from the past three months.
Every team goes through ups and downs, but OSU was in free fall and it didn’t really make any sense.
This was the team that beat Duke by 22, the team that had complete control of Florida.
Even things previously considered a given turned into questions.
The steady preseason All-American Jared Sullinger showed signs of struggling for the first time in his career.
His shooting percentage was 10 percentage points lower than his season average and he was scoring about three points below his average during the span.
Matta called the squad the worst practice team he had ever coached and even came uncharacteristically close to calling out some of his players.
“They weren’t ready to practice, and this team has shown we play like we practice,” he said after the loss.
Then he made it clear it wasn’t the freshmen or the young guys that had the problem. It was the guys with experience he had a problem with.
“My freshmen always come ready to practice,” Matta said. “They do a great job.”
After the Syracuse game, sophomore guard Aaron Craft admitted his team was in a dark place during February.
“I think we had to do some soul searching as a basketball team,” he said. “We definitely went through a rough patch when we lost three of five.”
So the questions began and theories were rampant.
The Buckeyes lacked leadership. Sullinger’s weight loss was actually hurting him. Matta can recruit, but when it comes to coaching, he can’t get the job done.
We heard it all and probably said a lot of it too.
I know I did.
Matta said he told the team around that time they were destined to be eliminated in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament if things didn’t change.
OSU beat Duke Nov. 29.
If you asked people then whether the Buckeyes would make the Final Four, the number of people who truly believed that would become a reality could have filled Ohio Stadium 20 times over.
If you asked people the same question Feb. 26, you probably couldn’t fill up the Schottenstein Center.
But the players in that locker room still believed and said all the critics only fueled their fire.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was underdogs, we wasn’t good enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature,” Sullinger said. “We heard the negative comments. I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that.”
Maybe it was the critics. Maybe it was Sullinger and sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas learning how to coexist.
I know sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. talked about a great team meeting the night before the opening day of the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe it was the meeting.
Maybe it was a combination of a lot of things.
Whatever it was, something turned this team around that wasn’t there Feb. 26.
OSU will play Kansas Saturday in New Orleans at about 9 p.m. The Buckeyes lost to Kansas in December, but Sullinger was hurt then. Saturday he was named the NCAA Tournament East Region’s Most Outstanding player for averaging 18 points and 8.3 rebounds over the course of four games. Don’t bet against Sullinger or his team in New Orleans. They’re on a mission.
“(We’re) not going down to New Orleans for a vacation,” Sullinger said. “It’s a business trip.”