Cody Cousino / Photo editor
BOSTON – Ohio State men’s basketball sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas loves to score so much that he apologized for it Friday.
Thomas won’t have anything to apologize for if he scores the way OSU coach Thad Matta expects him to against Syracuse Saturday.
The second-seeded Buckeyes (30-7) will play the top-seeded Orange (34-2) Saturday at TD Garden in Boston in the NCAA Tournament East Regional Final with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
The Buckeyes advanced to the Elite Eight after defeating No. 6-seeded Cincinnati, 81-66, Thursday. UC was led by junior guard Cashmere Wright’s 18 points, but it wasn’t enough. The OSU sophomore forward tandem of Thomas and Jared Sullinger combined for 49 points. Thomas scored 26 points while Sullinger collected a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds.
OSU also defeated No. 15-seed Loyola (MD) in the second round March 15, 78-59, before taking No. 7-seed Gonzaga down Saturday, 73-66.
For OSU, the trip to the Elite Eight is the 10th in program history and the second under Matta. The Buckeyes posted a 9-1 record in their previous Elite Eight bouts, but coach Jim Boeheim’s Orange, and their well-known zone defense, is blocking the path to a 10th victory.
Syracuse gained passage to the Elite Eight at the top of the East Region bracket by outlasting No. 4-seeded Wisconsin, 64-63, Thursday in Boston. The Orange also avoided an upset against UNC Asheville in their tournament opener and defeated Kansas State March 15 and 17, respectively.
The Orange rode their zone defense all the way to the Elite Eight.
“There a few advantages to playing the zone,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said during a Friday press conference. “We play zone because we think its our best defense overall to win the game. But at the end of games, you’ll see at least half the time in a close game, there’s a foul called on a drive to the basket.”
Boeheim will again employ the zone defense against OSU, but the Buckeyes figure to be ready for it, having faced similar defensive sets in each of there last two tournament victories against the Bearcats and Bulldogs.
Matta said seeing Cincinnati’s zone defense Thursday helped prepare his team.
“If you look at the last 21 games of the Big Ten games that we played since late December, some teams play zone, but I wouldn’t call them zone teams, with the exception of Northwestern,” Matta said while speaking on the importance of playing against Cincinnati’s defense. “You don’t see 20 minutes of it.”
Matta also said that Thomas could be a key component in breaking Syracuse’s zone down.
“I think the great thing (Thomas) has is he cannot only stretch (the zone), but he’s driving the ball,” Matta said. “The last month of the season, he’s really putting it on the deck and doing a better job there, but he can also post-up. He finds seams and then he’s a very prolific rebounder on the offensive end.”
Thomas has scored a team-leading 75 points in OSU’s three NCAA Tournament games, and 130 points dating back to the Buckeyes’ first postseason game of the season against Purdue March 9 in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
Thomas said Friday that he loves to score.
“I mean, high school I really … coaches had the ball in my hand 110 percent of the time,” Thomas said. “That’s what I do. I love to score – I’m sorry.”
Thomas could be the difference, but Sullinger said every OSU player would be giving it their all.
“I just know it’s going to be a very physical game,” Sullinger said. “Whoever wins this game is going to be in the Final Four. … We’re just trying to keep the train rolling.”
OSU’s Saturday game against Syracuse in Boston will tip at 7:05 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS.