For two straight seasons in 1961 and 1962 the Buckeyes and Bearcats squared off in the National Title game following Ohio State’s first and only National Championship. Both years the Bearcats got the better of the Buckeyes, winning their only two basketball national titles in the NCAA Tournament Era. This game marks the first time these two teams have met in the NCAA tournament since that game in 1962, a historical clash of titans occurring far earlier in the tournament than their lofty history would prefer.
The Cincinnati Bearcats have had a successful season this year, earning their second tournament bid in two years and working their way to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001. During the season the Bearcats have notched impressive victories over: Syracuse in the Big East Tournament, twice against Georgetown – once away, once in the Big East Tournament – and Marquette at home. While they have not been a particularly consistent team during the season, they performed well enough to catch the eye of the selection committee.
Cinci has not had a particularly easy path to the Sweet 16. While their first opponent was a very young 11th-seeded Texas squad, the Longhorns surged and nearly caught the overconfident Bearcats after scoring a pathetic 2 points in the first 10 minutes and 15 seconds of the game. Cincinnati found themselves in a dog fight over the last ten minutes of the game, after watching Texas slowly and inexorably climb back into the game, but were able to pull out the 65-59 victory to advance.
In the Round of 32 the Bearcats were paired up with a hot Florida State Seminoles team fresh off an ACC Tournament Championship win over UNC the week before. The Seminoles were clearly favored in the game, but the Bearcats were much better than many expected. Both teams clawed for the advantage throughout the game, never achieving more than a 5 point lead before the end of the game. In the end, the Bearcats had succeeded at gaining the upper-hand and earned the opportunity to face the second-seeded Buckeyes in Boston.
Head Coach Mick Cronin has lead the Bearcats to a resurgence after the loss of head coach Bobby Huggins. Overall he has been to four NCAA Tournaments, taking Murray State to two in his three years there. In his six years since taking over for interim head coach Andy Kennedy, Cronin has notched a 106-82 record, including 20 win seasons the last two years, along with a pair of NCAA Tournament bids. He clearly has Cincinnati on the right course to return to their place as one of the tough dogs in the College Basketball landscape. A win against the Buckeyes, and entrance into the Elite 8 for the first time in his career, would go a long way towards cementing the Bearcats back in the center of public attention.
Senior Forward Yancy Gates (6-9, 260) is undoubtedly a name that many basketball fans are familiar with. While he has been a very good player for Cronin, his on-court incident against Xavier earlier this year propelled him into the viewer’s eyes more than his basketball stats ever could. He scores just over 12 points per game and leads the team in rebounds with just under 10. He is primarily an interior player that will launch the long ball about once every 3 or 4 games – not enough to be dangerous. However, he’s a fighter in the paint and won’t give up the ball easily.
Helping Gates on the outside is Sophomore Guard Sean Kilpatrick (6-4, 215). Kilpatrick is the team’s leading scorer with 14 points per game, and is versatile enough to score in multiple ways. While his three point shooting is average (37.6%), he’s good enough to force defenders to worry about it. That allows him to attack the basket off the dribble drive against aggressive defenders. He will very likely be matched up against Aaron Craft, one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and it should be interested to see how the battle of the sophomores turns out.
Ohio State is in the Sweet 16 for the third time in as many years, but this time they don’t have to play a team from the SEC. Two years ago the Buckeyes lost a tough battle against Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee Volunteers 76-73 when Evan Turner’s last second desperation three did not fall. There was mild controversy regarding the final shot, as the Volunteer defender appeared to foul Turner on the shot, but no call was forth coming. Ohio State ran into difficulties again last season when William Buford’s last second three clanged out wide-right, allowing 4th seeded Kentucky to escape with the 62-60 upset over the top-seeded Bucks.
Thad Matta is looking for a different outcome this time around against the 6th seeded Bearcats. To go out in the Sweet 16 for the third year running would be seen as a tremendous disappointment, considering the talent present on the roster during that stretch. To do it against the chief instate competition in the sport historically (nothing against Ohio and Xavier) would be nearly an embarrassment – one the Buckeyes would prefer to avoid. The Sweet 16 also marks the furthest that any one player currently on the roster has experienced, as William Buford’s first season saw the Buckeyes bounced out in the first round to Fran McCaffery’s Siena squad. It would not be surprising if Buford would like to have a taste of the later rounds in his last attempt.
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The Buckeyes as a whole match up particularly well with the Bearcats. Cincinnati gets great production out of their starters, in fact 4 of them break double digits in scoring, with only Jaquon Parker falling below at 9.3. However, the Bearcats don’t see much production from their bench on the scoreboard. Against Florida State, Cronin ran 9 deep, but only had 5 points scored off the bench – compared to Ohio State’s 9 deep and 0 bench points against Gonzaga and you get the picture that these teams are very balanced. Unfortunately for the Bearcats, the overall talent definitely rests in the Buckeye’s favor. Aaron Craft is clearly the best defender, and will make life difficult for Kilpatrick, while Yancy Gates and Jared Sullinger will duke it out in the paint for supremacy.
This is not the first time Cronin has met the Buckeyes under Thad Matta. On December 16th, 2006, the Buckeyes, led by stellar freshman Greg Oden, laid waste to the Bearcats 72-50 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes were so unstoppable that they carried on a 26-2 run over the last 9 minutes and 44 seconds of the first half. While Cincy did do a better job in the second, the damage of a 42-16 halftime lead was unrecoverable for the Bearcats in the second half.
While none of the player’s are the same, you can bet Cronin hasn’t forgotten such an embarrassing defeat from his first season. He would like nothing more than to get a measure of revenge on a much larger stage.
Ohio State and Cincinnati will face off for only the second time since 1962 on Thursday Night at 9:45 PM EST in the Boston Regional. You’ll be able to see the game on CBS, closely following the game between #1 Syracuse and #4 Wisconsin.