The smile on Jordan Sibert’s face said it all. Joy, elation, maybe even shock. The NCAA Tournament is built on memories, and he’s already got one that will last a lifetime.
It also was a smiley face he texted former teammate and close friend Sam Thompson, who simply replied, “I’ll see you Thursday.”
Dayton’s leading scorer – once destined to star at Ohio State – will instead take on the Buckeyes, a team whose roster is filled with former teammates. Two years ago, Sibert was preparing for a Final Four run with Ohio State. Now, he’ll breakdown film of AAU teammate Aaron Craft and see familiar faces such as Thompson, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott.
“When I saw our name pop up, I was just excited to be able to experience this with my teammates. We all worked hard this year,” Sibert told reporters Sunday night, smile still adorned to his face. “It’s been a tremendous year for us. Just to be able to get in the tournament is a blessing. Then to see it was against Ohio State. The whole thing, especially with me transferring from there, is exciting. I’m really at a loss for words.”
Walter Offutt, an Ohio State transfer who finished his career at Ohio University, tweeted, “Jordan Sibert gets a dream that every transfer wants!” Sibert confirmed that by revealing he’s often thought about facing his former school. Not that it seemed remotely possible.
“Anytime you transfer, for whatever reasons – and there are no hard feelings at all on my part with Ohio State – you always want to do your best,” Sibert said. “And if you are going against your old team, you want to put your best foot forward.
“It’s definitely exciting. It’s definitely a blessing to compete again at a high level against Ohio State. We’re just excited to have this matchup.”
The two schools, separated by just 72 miles of I-70, have only played nine times in their histories, and both universities have been playing for more than a 100 years. The only meeting in the last quarter-century took place in Columbus during the 2008 NIT.
Thad Matta’s scheduling philosophy doesn’t include schools from Ohio. And certainly not ones that could beat the Buckeyes. That’s what prompted Seth Davis to exclaim, “You can’t duck them anymore, Thad,” during the selection show.
Ironically, Matta said he was happy when he saw Dayton’s name appear on the television screen. Former Ohio State assistant Archie Miller is the Flyers’ head coach.
“My first initial reaction was I was so excited to see Dayton up there. I wanted Arch to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Matta said. “Then it was kind of like, ‘Ohh, here we go.’ But I’m so happy for him. And I’ll be honest, I won’t even see him down there. During the game, that’s irrelevant to me. It seems like the longer you do this, eventually it all comes full circle.”
Thursday will be the third time since 2007 Matta’s faced a former assistant in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State won the previous meetings, both on buzzer-beaters against Sean Miller-coached teams.
There have been sporadic matchups against in-state schools, but the only games against the three premier programs – Dayton, Cincinnati and Xavier – have come in the postseason. In Matta’s 10 seasons as head coach of the Buckeyes, they’ve only had 10 regular-season games against Ohio schools.
“We’re just excited to have this matchup.”– Jordan Sibert
When you’re the flagship program in a state, there’s little benefit to playing a mid-major or perceived B-list school. If you win, you should have. If you lose, it’s an embarrassing blemish that could affect in-state recruiting.
This subject garnered headlines earlier this season when Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said Kansas turned down a three-game series from the Shockers.
“If it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not,” Kansas head coach Bill Self told the Kansas City Star. “The one thing about being in coaching a long time and coaching at different schools and different levels is the fact that you understand that coaches schedule what’s in the best interest of their program.”
The same logic applies to Ohio State, no matter how loud fans shout that they want a four-team round robin tournament. But supporters of both schools got what they want, if only for a day. Sibert, too.
”This is not Jordan versus the Buckeyes or me against the Buckeyes,” Miller cautioned. “We’re all part of a team, and no one preaches team more than me.”
Sibert’s career has been resurrected at Dayton. He’s averaging a team-high 12.5 points per game on 46-percent shooting from the field. He’s a 44-percent shooter from 3, one of the missing links from the current Ohio State team. LaQuinton Ross and his 36-percent conversion rate from beyond the arc is the Buckeyes’ most reliable threat from long range.
Matta said he’s been an observer of Sibert and Miller’s successful season. But there is no regret in letting Sibert walk away from Ohio State. When the then-sophomore approached Matta following the Final Four in 2012, Sibert’s main issue was playing time.
Many expected Sibert to start his sophomore season, but Smith won the competition and Thompson took a bulk of the minutes off the bench. Eleven minutes a game dimmed the lights on Sibert’s junior and senior seasons.
“When he left, he said, ‘Look, I just want to play a lot.’ He’s definitely getting to do that,” Matta said. “He’s having a great career there. I’m one of these guys that, hey, as long as everybody’s happy where they are and what they’re doing, I’m happy for them.”
It isn’t all offense, all the time for Sibert. He’s also active on the defensive end, which should give coaches and fans images of Craft and Scott. Sibert is second on the team in steals. But his accuracy from three-point range will not be a familiar sight for Buckeye faithful. Sibert wasn’t a sharpshooting guard in Columbus and the go-to tag didn’t apply.
What if, though?
What if Sibert had stayed at Ohio State and progressed like he has an hour to the west? Might the Buckeyes be gearing up for a third consecutive trip to the Final Four?
Sibert doesn’t spend much time pondering what might have been. The here and now is where his focus lies. On Saturday, Sibert made his first trip back to Value City Arena since he left Ohio State. His high school – Cincinnati Princeton – was playing in the girls’ state championship.
“Walking in was weird. It was kind of awkward,” Sibert said. “It felt familiar, though. But I was like, ‘This ain’t my home anymore – I’m a Flyer.’“