College basketball’s regular season stretches four months with thousands of games contested. Yet, it’s often the final weeks that are most significant. And sometimes a loss works out in your favor. Imagine that.
Conference tournaments contain little value to a segment of coaches, while another subset believes they’re the almighty. The Big Ten Tournament has been kind to Ohio State over the years, and it worked out that way again in 2014. But not because the Buckeyes won the championship or even reached the title game.
Instead, a loss to Michigan in the semifinals appears to have kept them close to home. Isn’t that interesting? If Ohio State had played in the championship game for a sixth consecutive season, it likely would have been a 4 or 5 seed with a ticket to Spokane, Wash., or San Diego.
Southern California is nice in March – or any other time of the year – but traveling three time zones after three games in three games is less than ideal.
“I thought we’d be a 5,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta told reporters Sunday. “As many Big Ten teams that got in, how it was explained to me, we might have gotten bumped, which is fine.
“San Diego’s so nice. But I always say that’s why I chose an indoor sport.”
So Tuesday afternoon, sixth-seeded Ohio State boarded a plane, flew 62 minutes to Buffalo, N.Y., indulged on a delectable dinner and remained on the same sleep schedule.
In eight NCAA Tournament appearances under Matta, the Buckeyes’ first week games have been played in Dayton (twice); Lexington, Ky.; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The combined distance from those six cities is fewer miles than it took Ohio State to travel to Los Angeles for the regional last season.
After four years of being a 1 or 2 seed, Ohio State’s in foreign territory – and not because Canada is just across the border from Buffalo’s First Niagara Center. The possibility of a one-and-done experience is real. The 6-11 game has been filled with upsets, and the Buckeyes fit the model of a team who could get beat by an underdog.
“We know whatever seed we get, wherever we’re placed in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no such thing as an easy opponent,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “We have to bring our best basketball for 40 minutes if we want to have success in the tournament. Whether we have a 2 next to our name or a 6 next to our name, that doesn’t change.”
“San Diego’s so nice. But I always say that’s why I chose an indoor sport.”– Thad Matta
The importance doesn’t change either. But the obvious underlying theme is the all-Ohio matchup. It’ll certainly raise the intensity for Dayton, a school Ohio State routinely opts against scheduling in the regular season. The Flyer bench has three former Buckeyes – head coach Archie Miller, assistant coach Kevin Kuwik and leading scorer Jordan Sibert. They’ve won 10 of their last 12 games and enter the tournament brimming with confidence.
Count Matta among the group who believes seeing an in-state foe with a chip on its shoulder will benefit the Buckeyes.
“There won’t need to be a wakeup call,” he said.
Both teams’ rosters are filled with Ohioans, several players know each other and even the head coaches speak regularly. Facing a friend is an old hat for Matta, who’s 12-4 against former assistants. He’s also been successful against former rivals. Matta’s recorded a 2-0 record against Cincinnati and Dayton, Xavier’s two nemeses.
Once the game is underway, though, Matta said the person in the other coach’s box is irrelevant. What’s not irrelevant is Ohio State’s path to Memphis and the South Regional Semifinal. It’s a one-game-at-a-time mindset, but coaches have no choice than to peek ahead due to the short turnaround, though Matta took the coachspeek angle.
“I know we got Dayton, Syracuse and Western Michigan. That’s all I saw,” he said. “I don’t even know where we go if we win games to be honest with you.”
Surviving Dayton would likely bring forth a rematch of the 2012 Elite Eight when Ohio State beat Syracuse. The Orange would once again have a home-court advantage, just three hours from their campus in Upstate New York. But unlike two years ago, the Buckeyes don’t have the components to counter Jim Boeheim’s famed and effective zone defense.
Ohio State’s three-point shooting ranks near 300th nationally.
“I just hope I see it,” Matta said of the Orange’s zone. “We need a good three-day prep for Dayton.”
Six seed or not, it’s still the month of dreamers – a time where even 13-19 Cal Poly or tiny Texas Southern ponder the possibilities.
“I don’t know if you have that one dominant team where you say, ‘They should win the national championship,’” Matta said. “I think the tournament is wide open. I still can’t get over that a guy (Warren Buffet) is willing to pay a billion dollars if somebody gets it right. It must be pretty up in the air. You’re going to see some crazy things.”
For Matta, a national championship would only net $180,000, not a cool billion. Elation would supply the remaining $999,820,000.