East preview: Ohio State vs. Cincinnati

BOSTON -- Technically, Cincinnati and Ohio State last played in 2006, but ask anyone who gives a fig about either program and they will tell you that game was a manufactured replacement of the real deal. The game was played in Indianapolis -- not even on home-state soil.

To true fans, the last time these schools met was in 1962, the second of the back-to-back battles for nothing less than an NCAA title.

The catch with this rivalry, which is celebrating 50 years of absence, is that there are fewer and fewer people who remember it.

Forget the players who will tussle when the Buckeyes and Bearcats meet in the Sweet 16; most of the players' parents weren’t even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.

Neither Thad Matta nor Mick Cronin were even born.

“There’s nostalgia, guys, but I wasn’t alive,’’ Cronin said. “I grew up on that stuff, but I wasn’t alive.’’

Most everyone targets the Buckeyes as the bad guys in this Western. The Bearcats won those two national titles over their bigger, land-granted neighbor. And with the exception of the made-for-TV game in Indy, the Buckeyes have since taken their toys and gone home.

That puts Matta in a tricky situation this week, tiptoeing around a question that doesn’t have a really good answer. He’s not necessarily at fault for failing to reschedule the game, but he hasn’t made it happen, either.

“I don’t know if I can give you a great answer exactly why we don’t play,’’ Matta said. “It’s one of those things that it is what it is.’’

That the two are finally reconnecting with something critical on the line makes this all the more delicious.

Cincinnati has not made it to the Sweet 16 since 2001 and hasn’t made it out of the regional semifinals since 1996.

By now most everyone knows Ohio State’s recent history -- a host of regular-season wins and two regional semifinal losses to show for it.

So there is much more at stake here than just rekindling the flames for the retired set.

“It still kind of has bad blood between the two schools,’’ Jared Sullinger said. “But this one is going to be remembered for whoever goes to the Elite Eight.’’

Who to watch

Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas: He’s the ultimate mismatch for the four-guard lineup Cincinnati prefers. Big, strong and athletic, he can score outside, but he also can do damage inside. In fact, he leads the NCAA tournament with 30 points in the paint in two games.

What the Bearcats can do with him defensively will go a long way in figuring out a winner.

“It will be a team effort,’’ Sean Kilpatrick said. “But I think will be OK with him.’’

Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick: The guard has the ability to light it up from outside. He’s shooting 5-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc in the NCAA tournament and only 3-of-7 from inside it. If he gets hot, the Buckeyes could have some problems.

What to watch

The paint: With a much smaller lineup, Cincinnati is going to have to be very careful inside. Yancy Gates will have his hands full with Sullinger and Thomas, and he can’t allow the two to dominate on the boards or in the scoring column.

“I’ve been guarding a lot of good big men this season,’’ Gates said. “They all do a lot of different things. I think it’ll just be another challenge, trying to get to New Orleans.’’