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Elise Amendola, Associated Press
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, left, laughs as teammate Deshaun Thomas speaks during a news conference in Boston, Friday, March 23, 2012. Ohio State will play Syracuse in an NCAA tournament East Regional final college basketball game on Saturday.

BOSTON — Deshaun Thomas' reputation as a shoot-first player is well known. Ohio State's high-scoring forward even apologizes for it.

"I love to score," Thomas said Friday, one day after leading the Buckeyes with 26 points — and no assists — in their 81-66 win over Cincinnati that put them in Saturday night's East Regional final against Syracuse.

At Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he averaged 29.9 points in four years, "coaches had the ball in my hands 110 percent of the time. That's what I do," he said. "I love to score. I'm sorry."

No need to apologize.

Without the sophomore, Ohio State would have had a much harder time reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in five years. He's averaging 16.2 points this season but has just 33 assists in 37 games.

"He came in with the mentality of being a scorer," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. "We've talked a lot to him about (how) there's so many other ways that he can affect our team in a positive way."

He did that against Gonzaga in the third round of this year's tournament when he gave up his shot and passed to William Buford.

"He had a hot hand and he caught (the ball) in the corner and he had a good shot and he kicked it to Will for a wide-open shot," Matta said. "I kind of said to myself, 'He's arrived, he understands.'"

Of course, Thomas had just one assist in that 73-66 victory.

"I always joke with Will," Thomas said, "that one assist I have a game will be to him, and it would be a game-changer."

But he said it hasn't been that difficult giving the ball up more, especially when he sees teammate Jared Sullinger pass it from inside while being double-teamed.

"I'll be like, 'I want to do that. I want to pass the ball. Let me see who can make the shot. I want to get an assist,'" Thomas said with a smile, "and it will be to Will."

PITINO'S LESSON: It wasn't long ago that Louisville coach Rick Pitino was going through a difficult stretch in his life while dealing with the failed extortion attempt by the ex-wife of a team manager.

The married father of five acknowledged having a sexual tryst Karen Sypher several years ago and endured six painful hours on the witness stand during her federal trial in the summer of 2010. Sypher was convicted of trying to extort millions of dollars from Pitino last year and was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison.

Pitino is enjoying himself with the Cardinals — a win away from playing in his sixth Final Four — but the memory of that ugly experience still lingers.

"I brought that upon myself, although I feel there's a lot of distortion," he said. "I learned a couple of things from that experience, and that is to turn the other cheek, just turn the other cheek. I got great advice when it comes to problems: Don't try to explain yourself, don't try to tell the truth, tell your side, just move on. I learned, too, my family was absolutely awesome. I learned my athletic director was awesome. They knew the truth."

FAMILIAR FACE: As Ohio State made its run to the regional final, a lot of people saw a man in a suit on the Buckeyes' bench and thought he looked familiar.

Ohio State's video coordinator is Greg Paulus, Duke's point guard from 2006-09 and Syracuse's quarterback — the football kind — as he pursued a Master's degree in 2009. After one season as an assistant basketball coach at Navy, Paulus joined Thad Matta's staff at Ohio State. Matta recruited Paulus out of high school when he was coaching at Xavier.

Paulus, a three-year starter at Duke who appeared in four NCAA tournaments, played his final college basketball game at TD Garden, where the Buckeyes will play Syracuse on Saturday. The Blue Devils lost to Villanova 77-54 in the East Regional semifinals in 2009.

"I love watching football with him because he can tell you what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, why it's going to happen, the coverages," Matta said. "And I sat with him a couple times at Ohio State games this year and honestly learned a ton. He's got a great mind, obviously, for the game of football. And I do know this: There was nobody rooting harder for Syracuse this year than he was. I think he feels like he's been a great part of that program, and he loves the staff and his teammates."

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has known Paulus, who is from central New York, since he was a kid.

"I've known Greg since he was in about eighth grade," Boeheim said. "He was a great player and loves the game and a great football player and basketball player, and I've always enjoyed conversations with him over the years. He's a great kid. He understands the game. He'll be a tremendous coach."

BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT: Ohio State coach Thad Matta is a veteran college coach even though he's only 44 years old. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, 67, graduated from the only school he has ever worked for in 1966, a year before Matta was born.

So Matta's backhanded compliment when he was asked about Syracuse's program rang true.

"I think when you look at coach Boeheim and the job he has done, I hate to say this, since I was a little kid, just watching Syracuse year in, year out, all the great players, all the great teams they've had," Matta said.

THE OTHER PITINO: The big story line heading into Saturday's West Regional final is the relationship between Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Florida's Billy Donovan, his former player at Providence.

There's also a strong connection between Donovan and another Pitino: Rick's son and assistant Richard.

While playing at Providence, Donovan got to know Richard and Pitino's other kids. Richard, who was 3 or 4 at the time, would often sit in Donovan's lap when he went to the Pitino's home and Rick keeps a photo of them together in his office.

Donovan stayed close to Richard over the years and after he broke into coaching offered him a job as an assistant at Florida. Richard and Donovan became even closer in two years together and still stay in touch now that the younger Pitino is the associate head coach to his father at Louisville.

"I had a lot of trust and confidence and faith in him just because I've known him for so long," Donovan said. "And I'm also happy, too, that he was able to go back to Louisville with his dad as an associate coach. I don't think it will be too long before people will be knocking on his door to provide him a head coaching opportunity. He's certainly, I think, more than capable and ready to handle that."

IN THE ZONE: Since the retirement of Temple's John Chaney, no college basketball coach is as well known for his zone defense than Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and his 2-3.

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Boeheim, third on the Division I wins list with 890 and fifth on the NCAA tournament list with 48, is asked often about ditching his defense for the standard man-to-man. He was asked again Friday.

"It's always funny to me, I never hear anybody yelling at Mike Krzyzewski to go back and play zone," he said, referring to Duke's coach, who is widely praised for his man-to-man approach. "Why is that? He's such a good coach, you don't question him? Is that what that is? Really? Somebody shook their head down here. OK, that means I'm not a good coach, so you can question me."

Boeheim's final comment was quick, raised an eyebrow or two and wasn't included in the transcript of the news conference.

AP Basketball Writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.