Deshaun Thomas (1) gave Ohio State a lift in its win over Gonzaga by scoring 10 points in the final three minutes of the first half. | Getty Images
Today’s third-round games
11:15 — North Carolina State vs. Georgetown, Ch. 2
1:45 — Saint Louis vs. Michigan State, Ch. 2
4:15 — Creighton vs. North Carolina, Ch. 2
5:10 — Norfolk State vs. Florida, TNT
6:10 — Ohio vs. South Florida, TBS
6:45 — Lehigh vs. Xavier, truTV
7:40 — Purdue vs. Kansas, TNT
8:40 — Cincinnati vs. Florida State, TBS
Updated: April 19, 2012 8:44AM
PITTSBURGH — Quick now. Can you name the last Big Ten team to win a national championship?
It was the blue-collar Michigan State squad that Mateen Cleaves willed to victory in 2000. Before that, you have to go back to Michigan in 1989, improbably led by interim coach Steve Fisher.
No titles in more than a decade. Only one in more than two decades.
That’s a long time for a conference supposedly chocked full of top-10 programs, a conference that fills big arenas in fertile recruiting turf, a conference that has its own television network.
In other words, it’s about time. And this might be that time.
The Spartans, a No. 1 seed led by another Cleaves-like winner, Draymond Green, head the list of candidates.
Also lurking in case Kentucky runs into a Norfolk State disaster is Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, the No. 2 seed in the East behind vulnerable No. 1 Syracuse, won’t turn a lot of heads with their workmanlike 73-66 victory against capable Gonzaga on Saturday. But when they’re on their game, they’re a tough out.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if they’re cutting down the nets in New Orleans,’’ Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “They’re right at that level with some of those other good teams, like Syracuse and Kentucky.’’
Ohio State (29-7) still needs to prove that. There was a time late in the first half when the Buckeyes looked as if they might be in trouble. Down 30-23 with their star big man, Jared Sullinger, on the bench with two fouls, Ohio State seemed on the verge of collapse.
But then, unpredictable sophomore 6-7 Deshaun Thomas, who had managed only 11 points in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten title-game loss to Michigan State, scored 10 in the final three minutes of the half, and Ohio State went to the break with a 39-37 lead on the Bulldogs (26-7).
Early in the second half, guard Aaron Craft, best known for defense, went to the hoop, sparking a surge that saw Ohio State open a 58-48 lead with nine minutes left. When the Zags pulled into a 61-61 tie with four minutes to go, Sullinger, who had been flummoxed for a big chunk of the game, finally asserted himself in the blocks, scoring a couple of key low-post baskets.
Sullinger and Thomas each finished with 18 points in uneven games for both. Craft had his first career double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“What Jared is capable of, what Deshaun is capable of, a lot of teams try to focus on those guys,’’ Craft said. “That just leaves Will [Buford], Lenzelle [Smith] and myself to be open to be aggressive. Tonight, there were open lanes. I found some.’’
Craft isn’t suddenly going to become a consistent scorer. Thomas isn’t suddenly going to become consistent. Buford is streaky. Sullinger is going to have rough patches.
To keep going, Ohio State is going to need different players to step up. Few, who used solid interior defense on Sullinger early and went to a zone late, dared various Buckeyes to try things. And they did enough for Ohio State to advance.
“They have a variety of guys,’’ Few said. “It ain’t just Sullinger, I can tell you that. They’ve got some guys that can really make some shots.’’
Ohio State will have to keep proving it next week in the Sweet 16, and coach Thad Matta knows there are rough edges. But some of that is a product of playing five games in nine days, including the Big Ten tournament.
His grade for the Buckeyes’ two games in Pittsburgh?
“At this point of the season, an A, because we’re playing in Boston next weekend,’’ Matta said. “That’s the big thing. We haven’t had a ton of time to sit down and say, ‘Hey, here’s the things we’ve got to do better.’ ’’
Now they’ll have a few days to do that. The Buckeyes have earned that much.