Cincinnati earns its shot at Ohio State

Dion Dixon had 15 points and three steals in the Bearcats' win over No. 3 seed Florida State. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin wasn’t biting late Sunday night.

His Bearcats had just bulldozed No. 3 seed Florida State 62-56 in the third round of the East Regional at Bridgestone Arena to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2001.

Up next just happens to be Ohio State, which is about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati’s campus, but might as well be 2,000 miles away when it comes to the schools establishing any semblance of a hoops rivalry.

They’ve played only once since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in the 1962 national championship game, and that was at the Wooden Tradition tournament in Indianapolis in 2006.

Cronin has made it known in the past that he’d love to play Ohio State on a regular basis and that there’s no reason the schools shouldn’t play. The only problem is that Ohio State hasn’t wanted to play, which probably explains Cronin’s answer Sunday when asked about the irony of facing the Buckeyes on such a national stage Thursday in Boston.

“I have great respect for their program,” Cronin said. “Other than that, they’re the next team we play. You know, these guys have a goal. We have a goal, and we got into the tournament to win it. I want my guys thinking that way because I believe in them. It’s important that they know that I believe we’re capable of winning the whole tournament.

“We’re capable of winning any game we play.”

And that includes the No. 2-seed Buckeyes, one of four schools from the state of Ohio to make the Sweet 16.

The Bearcats (26-10) got there with toughness, defense -- and as Cronin reminded everybody Sunday -- a healthy dose of talent, too.

Whether it was Sean Kilpatrick going 4-of-6 from 3-point range, Jaquon Parker yanking down 11 rebounds, or Dion Dixon stealing Luke Loucks' pass out of three-quarter court pressure and sailing in for a tomahawk dunk, Cincinnati made every play it needed to in knocking off the Seminoles. A Florida State team that won the ACC tournament championship this season and beat both Duke and North Carolina twice.

“I think we get a lot of credit for playing hard,” Cronin said. “I think, hopefully, tonight people saw our talent level, to be able to do things some teams in the ACC couldn’t do last week on a neutral court. … I think our talent level is a lot higher than people give us credit for.”

It was the Bearcats’ eighth win this season over a nationally-ranked opponent, and they had that unmistakable look about them when it came time to win or lose the game on Sunday.

Not only did they hit 9-of-10 free throws in the final two minutes, but they made key stops on the defensive end and chased down all the 50-50 balls.

Dixon’s steal and soaring dunk with 1:30 to play swung a back-and-forth game in Cincinnati’s favor for good.

“That kind of sparked us a little bit,” said Dixon, who had 15 points and three steals.

Like their coach, the Cincinnati players also downplayed the fact that it was Ohio State standing in their way next week in Boston.

What they didn’t downplay was where they expect to be when this tournament is over.

“Going to the Sweet 16 is all cool,” Parker said. “But we’re thinking way better than that. We’re trying to get past the Sweet 16 and do bigger and better things.”

The deeper the Bearcats advance, the more people will forget about their ugly brawl with Xavier in December that resulted in multiple suspensions of players.

Cronin said it’s been a fight every step of the way to get out from under that stigma, but he’s proud of the way his players have responded.

“We’ve been on a mission to define what Cincinnati basketball is all about, what our university and city is all about, and the kids have banded together to do that,” Cronin said. “It hasn’t been easy. These guys’ backs have been against the wall since that day, not because of the issue, because we were 5-3 and our RPI was sky-rocketing.

“We were so far away from the NCAA tournament we couldn’t see it with binoculars.”

They can see it now. Matter of fact, they have a front-row seat.