NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 16: Head coach John Groce of the Ohio Bobcats celebrates with D.J. Cooper #5 after defeating the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 16, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ohio is the center of the basketball universe this week. For the first time in the history of the NCAA Tournament, four teams from one state have advanced to the Sweet 16. The Buckeye state went a perfect eight for eight during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, even the Governor tweeted about the state's success but that was just the beginning of a wonderful weekend for Ohio basketball fans. There were upsets converted and upsets avoided, as high-majors and mid-majors moved on to the regionals and the second weekend of the dance.
And yes, the great state of Ohio is the center of the basketball universe.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 19, 2012
Point Guards Push Them Through
One trope NCAA Tournament analysts always use is that good guard play can take you anywhere in the dance. The four Ohio teams were lead by their guards in the first weekend, and that's undoubtedly the reason they're all moving on to the Sweet 16.
I linked to a great profile of D.J. Cooper before the tournament that highlighted the diminutive guard's "Napoleon complex" when it came to his on-court attitude and drive to lead John Groce's club. Cooper has emerged as the previously unknown star that is now the media poster boy for the bracket busting team. We see this almost every year during March Madness.
Cooper put the Bobcats in the dance with his 23-point performance against Akron in the MAC title game, and he's carried that over with 21-point and 19-point games against two BCS conference opponents. Cooper played a role in OU's upset over Georgetown two years ago, but it was largely Armon Bassett getting the headlines that weekend. Now, it's all about Cooper, with even some national outlets now shining a light on potential recruiting violations committed by other coaches who tried to get him to transfer out to a bigger school.
Unlike Cooper, Ohio State's Aaron Craft entered the tournament as a well-known commodity on the national stage (although they do have one thing in common - being illegally recruited by Bruce Pearl, allegedly). Craft has been a star since bursting on to the scene as a freshman, praised as an elite lockdown defender for two Buckeye teams that have been consistently ranked in the top five in the country.
With the Buckeyes looking flat and sluggish in the first half on Sunday against Gonzaga, it was Craft who put the team on his back and pushed them through to the Sweet 16. Jared Sullinger was in foul trouble for much of the first half, and Craft brought the Bucks back to even and then controlled the entire game in the second to keep the Bulldogs from pulling off the upset. It was his best game of the season - a double-double performance and a season-high 10 assists. As Greg Anthony stated on CBS, he was the best player on the floor.
Tu Holloway is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, and the point guard from Xavier took care of business this weekend against Notre Dame and Lehigh. Late Sunday night, already the narrative in the media centered on Xavier and Cincinnati bouncing back from the brawl that marred their seasons in early December. Holloway was at the center of the incident both on the court and at the press conference afterwards.
He's had an up-and-down season since then, but his tournament performance so far has carried the Musketeers to the Sweet 16. He had 21 points against Lehigh but his 25 against Notre Dame was the difference in a last second win over the Irish. His amazing floater over the Irish's Jack Cooley to give XU the lead with 25 seconds remaining was one of the best shots of the first three rounds. Video below:
Finally, Cincinnati completed the perfect Ohio weekend early Monday morning with an upset win over Florida State. It was the first time the Bearcats beat a higher seeded team in the NCAA Tournament, and it was the guard duo of Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick that pulled it off. Dixon, the senior from Chicago, is a multi-purpose guard for Mick Cronin, playing at the 2 or taking over point guard duties when Cashmere Wright struggles. Wright was off all night against FSU, and Dixon stepped up, scoring 15 points and being in on almost every single play in the final minute of the Bearcats 6-point win. His steal and dunk with 1:30 remaining gave the Bearcats a lead they would not relinquish and was the single play that lifted UC into the Sweet 16:
We know one Ohio team will be bowing out on Thursday night, as Cincinnati and Ohio State square off in the late game in Boston. This week, we'll have plenty more on the what comes next. For now, we should celebrate the March magic in the Buckeye state. It was a thrilling four days for Ohio basketball fans, and it will be a week full of hype leading up to the Sweet 16. And much of that hype should be focused on the guards that led the Ohio squads, as each team's success hinged on their floor general's performance.
Stay tuned to SB Nation Cleveland for complete coverage of Ohio's teams during the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 week.