BOSTON -- Like an incredible restaurant meal you once had that's never quite as good or the first kiss that never again carries that same kind of magic, Ohio State's national TV rout of Duke in late November remains the Buckeyes' unrepeatable ideal. The offense was devastating and exquisitely balanced, the defense comprehensively smothering, the lasting impression one of title-contending validation.
Of course, fleeting feelings of bliss come with significant context. It turns out Duke was more flawed than anyone thought, and as with a chef or a mate, ingredients and chemistry can change as familiarity grows and you revisit the experience. Things are not quite as intense, but if you find something or someone special enough, they still can be pretty damn good.
These Buckeyes, oozing with promise but inconsistent as the day is long, are still pretty damn good. Good enough to storm past Cincinnati, 81-66, thanks to a second-half surge. Good enough to make the Elite Eight. Good enough, perhaps, to win a national title without ever returning to fully symphonic harmony, even if the players continue to chase that moment when they were undeniably great.
"I hope we're close, because if not, we're going to get beat on Saturday by Syracuse," point guard Aaron Craft said. "We definitely show spurts. Sometimes a game can seem like it's lasting a long time, and it's definitely a grind."
The Buckeyes' inconsistent ways have been blamed on youth -- that was head coach Thad Matta's first default when asked about his team's sluggish second-half start -- but that feels like a bit of a canard. William Buford is a senior, Jared Sullinger and Craft have both logged over 2,000 minutes as collegians and even Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Deshaun Thomas have three dozen starts this season. They may start four underclassmen, but the Buckeyes are very seasoned by any standard in today's major-college environment.
Thursday night, a different theme emerged, as Sullinger made several references to Blue Collar Guys and Cool Guys, with the latter being the gremlins that spoil the often-excellent handiwork of the former. Having blown several games this season in Cool Guy fashion, Matta was happy to see a few lunchpails cracked open down the stretch.
"As we told our guys, if you turn it over against Cincinnati, they are scoring at the other end, and they did [during a second-half run that erased a double-digit Buckeyes lead]," Matta said. "To these guys' credit, they did a good job of playing themselves out of it and really got reconnected out there."
It's a tribute to the Buckeyes' talent that good enough usually is more than enough, but confusing as to why different players seem to emerge on different nights. Asked about why the Buckeyes can't seem to get everyone on the same page, Craft chuckled and said "I have no idea. And if I did, it would probably be addressed." Queried about the Buckeyes' frequent lapses in energy, Smith said "Sometimes, guys don't have it on defense, but it's up to me and Aaron to make sure they pick their juice up quick and it electrifies through our team." Buford mentioned the lack of finger-pointing that went on earlier in the year when a team hit Ohio State with a run. Progress, but at the same time, still confounding.
At this stage, we probably have to accept the Buckeyes for what they are. Perhaps a date with top-seeded Syracuse will bring out the best they have for long stretches of the game, but likely not for 40 minutes. And they almost certainly won't maintain that level for three games against elite opposition. No, the Cool Guys will show up at some point and the battle will begin anew. The Buckeyes will fight their opponent as they continue to fight their own tendencies and the memory of what once was. They're one win away from some pretty solid validation, though, and a chance to write a final chapter.
"If we win [Saturday], it will show that we have come together," Buford said. "We made the Final Four, so that will show a lot. If we don't ... you figure something out."
We're trying to, Will. Maybe you guys can give us some help?