Step three in coach Jim Larranaga's plan to upset Ohio State in the round of 32 relied on chance: It was to hope like heck David Lighty and William Buford didn't go off. After Sullinger and Diebler, George Mason's scouting report listed Lighty as a "likely shooter."
Lighty was more of a certainty Sunday, scoring 25 points and going 7 of 7 from 3-point range as the top-seeded Buckeyes rolled to a 98-66 rout of the eighth-seeded Patriots in the East Regional.
Less than 24 hours after Southeast Region No. 1 seed Pittsburgh lost to Butler and minutes after West Region No. 1 seed Duke barely escaped Michigan, Ohio State looked every bit the part of the tournament's top overall seed.
The Buckeyes head to Newark, N.J., having beaten their two tournament opponents – George Mason and 16th-seeded UT San Antonio – by a combined 61 points. Ohio State meets fourth-seeded Kentucky in a Sweet 16 game Friday night.
"You do hope that at least one or two of them will have an off-night shooting," Larranaga said. "But instead they were on fire."
While other top teams have looked vulnerable, Ohio State illustrated why it could cruise to the national championship. Sullinger, a presumptive top-five pick in whatever NBA draft he enters, had 18 points and eight rebounds, and it was a ho-hum stat line on this day. For one, Lighty was magnificent. Buford, the other player George Mason guarded with crossed fingers, finished with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Freshman guard Aaron Craft dished out a school-record 15 assists. It was the fourth-highest assist total in NCAA tournament history.
"They don't have one or two players with good skills; they've got an entire team with offensive skill sets that are very impressive," Larranaga said. "But what I think makes them so good – and I was a little bit surprised – their defensive pressure was outstanding in the first half."
The Buckeyes turned up the pressure after falling behind 11-2. Ohio State closed the half on a 50-15 run.
George Mason was without starting swingman Luke Hancock, the hero of the Patriots' first-round victory over Villanova. Hancock woke up with a bout of food poisoning and didn't arrive at the arena until halftime; even then, he was too dizzy to sit on the bench.
It wouldn't have mattered. Ohio State had everything working in its favor.
Lighty was buoyed by the hometown crowd; he went to high school at Cleveland's Villa Angela-St. Joseph. In addition, he and three other Buckeyes seniors – Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and Nicola Kecman – graduated at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, before the Buckeyes' shootaround. Ohio State made sure Lighty and the others received their degrees despite missing Sunday's on-campus ceremony. Miechelle Willis, the senior associate athletic director for student services, drove to Columbus to pick up the diplomas to have them on hand in Cleveland.
The Buckeyes might have been a bit too celebratory in the early going, falling behind 11-2. That's about when Sullinger and George Mason's Ryan Pearson started jawing. Basically, that was like kicking a beehive.
Adding to the energy boost, Matta inserted Craft. Though Craft plays starter's minutes at point guard, Matta likes what Craft brings off the bench.
Craft and Sullinger were in tune early, including a mind-boggling 40-foot bullet pass out of a double team that Sullinger converted into a dunk. The basket came early in a 25-4 run that put the game away.
Even when the game was out of hand and Sullinger, Lighty and Buford were on the bench, Craft didn't coast. He lost the ball, dived to reclaim it and saw Diebler's man had left his spot in an attempt to get the loose ball. Craft grabbed the ball and passed to Diebler from his rear end. Diebler hit a 3-pointer and drew a foul.
The four-point play gave Ohio State an 87-49 lead.
"I was upset I lost the ball in the first place," Craft said.
Matta pushed the right buttons, for certain, but Ohio State also displayed a mental makeup befitting a team not likely to slip up against a lesser team.
Earlier in the week, Sullinger referred to the dejected faces of Villanova's veterans as they left after their first-game loss. Lighty spoke about the joy and opportunity of possibly playing in front of family and friends for the last time.
"These guys have a heightened awareness that if you don't play well and you lose, the season's over," Matta said. "Things have gone really, really well. As I've said, I feel like with this team, it's Oct. 15 [the first day of practice]. It's just how much we enjoy being around each other."
Then again, it's easy to enjoy the company of teammates who can take turns carrying a team to the Sweet 16 and perhaps further.
Larranaga wouldn't say Ohio State is unbeatable, even with the way the Buckeyes played Sunday. Other teams may be more complete than George Mason; other teams may be better-suited for Ohio State's physicality. But Ohio State sure isn't going to give out any tips.
"I don't know what you would do to take notes on how to guard us," Sullinger said. "That's on them."