PITTSBURGH – Ohio State, a popular Final Four pick that has never left the top 10, was supposed to be the star of this Big Ten basketball season. Trouble is, Michigan State kept stealing the Buckeyes’ scenes.
The Spartans, who didn’t crack the top 25 until mid-December, not only horned in on a piece of the regular-season title. Draymond Green snatched player of the year from Jared Sullinger. And Sparty poked Brutus Buckeye in the conference tournament title game.
That helped Michigan State snatch a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while Ohio State was rated No. 2 in the East behind Syracuse.
With this year’s event heading into full dance-mode Thursday, though, Ohio State may be ready to strut. The Spartans are No. 1 in the West, where No. 2 Missouri is attracting so much Final Four attention, it seems more like 1A.
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s stock is rising in the East because Syracuse announced that 7-foot sophomore Fab Melo – the Big East defensive player of the year whose shot-blocking is as good as his name – won’t play due to an academic eligibility issue.
That stuff, though, is for fans and media, not the Buckeyes, who open vs. 15th-seeded Loyola, Md.
“We can’t worry about what’s going to be down the road,” senior guard William Buford said. “We can’t think, ‘We’re going to beat this team.’ We just have to worry about Loyola. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine.”
What matters, Sullinger said, is leaving it all on the floor when it counts the most.
“We had a pretty solid year, but in March, records go out the door,” he said. “Everybody’s fighting for their life. Tomorrow’s not promised.”
The Syracuse setback doesn’t merely benefit Ohio State. It boosts the chances of everyone in the Eastern bloc, from the popular dark horse, No. 5 Vanderbilt, to the Orange’s first opponent, No. 16 North Carolina-Asheville.
“At first everybody thought it was a joke,” said Chris Stephenson, one of Asheville’s four senior starters, when the news Tweeted through the Bulldogs’ bus. “I feel bad for Fab Melo. But I think it’s [Baye] Keita who’s coming in. He’s still 6-9. They’ll be OK.”
Actually, Keita is listed at 6-10. But Asheville, which didn’t embarrass itself in early-season losses to North Carolina and UConn, planned to take its best shot, Melo or no Melo.
And respected bracket expert Ken Pomeroy, who called this Bulldog team the sixth-best all-time No. 16 seed, thinks they have a chance to be the first No. 16 to beat a No. 1. Then again, Pomeroy rates two other 2012 teams ahead of Asheville. Lamar is the best No. 16 ever and Vermont is fifth, his calculations show.
“This really could be the year,” Pomeroy blogged on kenpom.com. “I say this every year, of course, but this time I mean it. For real. The crop of 16 seeds in the 2012 tournament appears to be the strongest ever.”
Syracuse isn’t throwing in the towel yet.
“We’re 31-2. Nothing really has affected us,” junior guard Brandon Triche said of a team that has weathered allegations that since-fired assistant Bernie Fine was a child molester and that 10 former players tested positive for recreational drugs.
“You never want to answer these questions,” Triche said. “But that’s what life is all about. Things pop up. It’s not always going to be positive.”
After saying all the right things about how the Orange will miss Melo, coach Jim Boeheim endorsed his team’s toughness.
“Winning 31 games is the best regular-season accomplishment I’ve ever been a part of in 36 years,” he said.
Will the ‘Cuse keep it going? Will Asheville do the unthinkable? Will Ohio State live up to its pre-season hype? That’s what makes this tournament so mesmerizing.