Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
If all the madness of March could be examined and condensed for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, it’d probably read as one word: pressure.
No, this isn’t last year’s team that was the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and heavy favorite to win it all.
But that sort of pressure, in more way than one, still remains.
For the third-straight year, the Buckeyes have advanced to the Sweet 16. They are set to play Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m. Thursday in Boston’s TD Garden.
Out of 345 Division I basketball teams, only OSU and Kentucky have managed to accomplish such a feat.
The question on everyone’s mind, though, is whether or not the Buckeyes’ season, for the third-straight year, will end there too.
It’s even gotten to the point that some have suggested the Sweet 16 is now an expectation for OSU and anything but just isn’t good enough anymore.
OSU coach Thad Matta doesn’t seem to think so, though.
“I’ve never been one to care a whole lot about what other people think,” Matta said with laugh. “Obviously nobody wants to win more than myself and the players do.”
While making it to the Sweet 16 is a goal of OSU and Matta’s, he was clear it’s not the end-all-be-all of their aspirations.
“I think being in the situation is great, but being complacent or satisfied is something that we don’t want to do,” he said. “The goal is to be playing on Saturday.”
Matta also wanted to point out that this year’s team is “a completely different team” than the past two teams that made it to and lost in the Sweet 16.
Still, he hoped lessons were learned the last time the Buckeyes were on such a stage.
“I do hope that for William (Buford) and the freshmen that they remember what it feels like to be sent home and you hope that it serves as a reminder, as motivation, whatever you want to call it,” Matta said.
What’s different compared to years past is OSU’s opponent Thursday: Cincinnati.
Traditionally-and by nature-teams facing off in the Sweet 16 have little familiarity with each other.
For example, the Buckeyes’ last two opponents were out of the Southeastern Conference-last year’s being Kentucky and the year before that, Tennessee.
This year, however, it’s a neighboring Ohio school that stands in OSU’s way of reaching the Elite 8.
Cincinnati, one of four Ohio-based teams (including OSU) to make the Sweet 16, will have its first crack at the Buckeyes since December 2006.
Perhaps more notably, it’s just the second time the teams have met since the Bearcats defeated the Buckeyes in consecutive national championship games in 1961 and 1962.
That, and OSU’s intentional or unintentional avoidance of playing other Ohio teams, is why some have suggested that there’s even extra pressure on OSU Thursday.
But, Matta said he doesn’t want to look at it that way.
“From that standpoint, I think that there’s so much more made on the outside than on the inside. … I want them to play their best basketball regardless of who we’re playing,” he said.
For the Buckeyes, the perceived additional challenge of facing an in-state team is more or less a non-factor.
“(The players are) pretty callous to that in terms of, ‘Hey, if we don’t play our best basketball, we don’t have a chance to win on Thursday night’ and they know that,” Matta said.
Rather than the contest being so focused on the intrigue of the matchup between OSU and UC, Matta said he thinks this is more about the NCAA Tournament.
“This is about trying to get to the Elite 8 and have a chance to play for the national championship,” he said. “Both teams are in the exact same position in that regard.”
Right or wrong, the perception out there is that the pressure on OSU to win and advance, perhaps, is as high as it’s been all season.
And it won’t be easy.
The Bearcats have been among the nation’s hottest teams since early February, winning 11 of the last 14 since dropping three in a row against West Virginia, Syracuse and Rutgers.
Matta said what stands out to him the most are their multi-dimensional guards and the presence that senior forward Yancy Gates commands down low.
He also said it seems that the Bearcats have seem to finally found their rhythm.
“I think what happened is a very talented group of guys came together. … You’ve got a talented group of guys that have come together and are playing great basketball,” Matta said.
Still, OSU said it will treat this game as they would any other.
“It’s more about advancing then who you’re advancing against,” Matta said.
And that’s exactly what the Buckeyes hope to do Thursday in Boston.