The scene was much different. Instead of cradling a championship trophy with stray pieces of net and confetti sitting nearby, Ohio State sat anxiously awaiting their NCAA Tournament fate inside a palatial lounge usually reserved for deep-pocketed boosters.
For the first time in six years, the Buckeyes weren’t in Indianapolis or Chicago for the selection show. Not after coming up small in crucial moments against Michigan in Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss. So they huddled in Columbus and learned they’d go from archrival to in-state foe.
Ohio State, a No. 6 seed in the South Region, will play No. 11 seed Dayton at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center in the opening round on Thursday. If the Buckeyes win, they’ll play the winner of No. 3 seed Syracuse and No. 14 seed Western Michigan on Saturday.
“There won’t need to be a wakeup call, there won’t need to be a ‘who is this, who are they?’” head coach Thad Matta said.
The journey to March has been a turbulent ride for the Buckeyes (25-9). There have been 127 days and 34 games. Highs and lows number in the dozens with a season-long progression mimicking an electrocardiogram.
Ohio State’s road to the Final Four begins in Buffalo – and there will be familiar faces across the court. The Flyers (23-10) are coached by former Ohio State assistant Archie Miller and their top offensive player is Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert.
Miller spent two seasons at Ohio State, from 2007 to 2008, before joining his brother, Sean, at Arizona. Sibert was a part of the heralded 2010 recruiting classes that included Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and J.D. Weatherspoon. He averaged 2.5 points in 49 games.
At Dayton, Sibert’s career has experienced a rebirth. He’s started 31 of 33 games this season and is averaging a team-high 12.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Sibert is shooting a robust 46 percent from the field and 44 percent from three.
“He’s having a great career there,” Matta said. “I’m one of those guys that believes, hey, as long as everyone is happy in where they are and what they’re doing, I’m happy for them.”
Might Sibert be excited to play against his former coaches and teammates?
“Absolutely,” Smith said, emphatically. “But at the same time, we’re in the same boat: you lose, you go home. I think we’re going to be playing jacked up for the same purpose.”
Potential regional semifinal matchups at FexEx Forum in Memphis include No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 7 New Mexico, No. 10 Stanford and No. 15 Eastern Kentucky. The regional final opponent could be No. 1 overall seed Florida, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 VCU, No. 8 Colorado, No. 9 Pitt, No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, No. 13 Tulsa or 16 seeds Albany and Mt. St. Mary’s.
But the Buckeyes first turn their attention to Dayton. For years, the city located an hour west of Columbus has been on the mind of Ohio State because of its arena. Now it’s because of the basketball-mad city’s favorite team.
Dayton has wins against four tournament teams – Gonzaga, Saint Louis. UMass, George Washington.
“I’m excited for this team and the opportunity to play again,” Matta said. “We’re a better basketball team than when we left Columbus for Indianapolis. No matter who you play in the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to be a really good basketball team. The fact that we’re playing a team from an hour away is irrelevant to me.”
Ohio State and Dayton have played six times with the Buckeyes holding a 4-2 advantage in the series. The last meeting came in the 2008 NIT Quarterfinals, when Ohio State topped the Flyers at Value City Arena.
For years, Matta has tortured Dayton, owning an 8-1 record against the Flyers. But past history isn’t on his mind. The vibe from Matta and Ohio State’s players remained the same as last week – the one-and-done nature of college basketball reigns supreme.
That means heightened pressure and intensity. The brand of basketball that rules March is consistent and high level – there are no kinks or defects.
Said junior forward Sam Thompson: “If we get into one of those funks that we got in a few times this season, our season will be over."