BUFFALO, N.Y. – Despite their close proximity, Ohio State and Dayton rarely meet on the basketball court. It’s one of those lose-lose scenarios for the Buckeyes, a big brother to its in-state brethren.
|Dayton (23-10)||First Niagara Center||12:15 p.m.||CBS (CBS Sports)|
Enter the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to match up Ohio State with fellow Ohio schools. Xavier, Cincinnati and now Dayton have been opponents dating to 2007. The Buckeyes have won the previous games, but there’s no denying a bull’s eye was locked onto Brutus.
“We obviously know that we’re Ohio State, so there is a bit of a target on our back,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “But the talk has been that we have to come and play 40 minutes of our best basketball or our season is over.”
This season’s opening-round tournament game will be far different from recent years. As a 1 or 2 seed, the Buckeyes have traipsed into the weekend without breaking a sweat. Life as a 6 seed is not so luxurius.
Dayton is not Iona, Loyola (Md.), Texas-San Antonio or UC Santa Barbara. A punching bag the Flyers are not. In the past five seasons, they’ve beaten 17 major programs. Adding Ohio State to the list would be enough for a tickertape parade through the streets of Dayton.
“We’re a great basketball team, we are here to win,” Dayton forward Devin Oliver said. “The most important thing is advancing. Not just beating Ohio State, but getting to the next round.”
Dayton’s season wasn’t unlike Ohio State’s. There were high hopes during the non-conference schedule, followed by a losing streak in the dead of winter and then a triumphant rise that created momentum before the NCAA Tournament.
The Flyers went to the Maui Invitational this season and came away with wins over Gonzaga and Cal. The lone blemish was a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Baylor. But the month of January brought a four-game losing streak and five losses in six games. A late-season surge that included 10 wins in 12 games – three over tournament teams – lifted the Flyers off the bubble.
One of the biggest components in Dayton’s success is former Buckeye Jordan Sibert. The transfer has been a boon to the Flyers’ offensive production. Sibert’s averaging a team-high 12.5 points per game and shooting 44 percent from three-point range. It’s the type of player Ohio State could use on a team that’s lacking consistency – and a three-point threat – on offense.
But Sibert doesn’t hold any ill-will toward his former coaches, teammates or school. That doesn’t mean there isn’t added motivation, though.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn't hype about the game,” Sibert said Wednesday. “Playing against your friends and going against people you've grown up with is definitely something to be excited about. But at the end of the day, I want to win. Me and my teammates want to be considered winners. It’s not about me. It's not about me playing against old teammates. It’s about Dayton Flyers versus Ohio State.”
Easier said than done. The Sibert-Archie Miller-state of Ohio connection has dominated coverage since Sunday’s announcement. Everyone associated with both teams has tried to downplay it all. When Sibert admits he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder, it’s hard to deflect attention.
“Every transfer would love to go against their old school again,” Sibert said. “I definitely want to go out there and play to the best of my ability, not do too much, whatever my team needs from me. I don’t care if I score a lot or a little. At the end of the day, as long as we have a win on our side, that’s all that matters to me.”
If Sibert’s offensive game is limited, it’d be tough for Dayton to overcome, but not implausible. It’s not a one-man band. Devin Oliver, Dyshawn Pierre and Vee Sanford each average double-figures scoring. But it’s Oliver whose presence is invaluable.
The 6-foot-7 forward is a veteran leader, providing 12.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – and unquantifiable leadership in the locker room. His offensive game is inconsistent, though, and a no-show performance against the Buckeyes could be a death knell.
“I think the most important thing going into this game is just do what we do every day,” Oliver said. “The team has got us to this point. Obviously, defense, rebounding, and limiting our turnovers are probably some of the more important factors of the game.
“We haven’t watched an extensive amount of film just yet, but Ohio State is known for their defense, getting on to shooters, running them off the line, and then the next player stepping up and helping. So I think it’s just important for us to take good shots. If you can drive the ball and kick it to get an even better shot, then that will only help out our team.”
Khari Price is a three-point threat, while senior center Matt Kavanaugh does the dirty work in the paint.
In three seasons at Dayton, Miller’s never had a losing season and won 62 percent of his games. Just 34 years old, Miller is one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
For his successes, Miller credited his mentor.
“Thad means a lot to me. He’s been a really special guy in my life for a long time,” Miller said. “Without that, I don’t think I'd be sitting here today.”
Battle of Ohio? Not according to Thad Matta. The Ohio State head coach just sees it as an NCAA Tournament game. He didn’t get caught up in the hype of playing Cincinnati two seasons ago, and he’s taking the same approach this year.
“From my perspective, because you’re in the NCAA Tournament, I think people want to put tags on situations,” Matta said. “But for us and for Dayton, you win or you go home. There’s not a whole lot more than that. I’m not going to be thinking, ‘Gosh, this is Dayton. We’re Ohio State.’ You’re more focused in on what do we have to do to achieve our goal.”
Aaron Craft, who hails from Findlay, understands the dynamic this game presents for Dayton. He might disagree with the big brother/little brother tag, but the Flyers’ stand to have extra oomph in the opening minutes.
“It comes down to being a basketball game. If you don't execute and play great basketball, you’re going to go home,” Craft said. “It doesn’t matter where you're from.”
While Jordan Sibert’s name is included in nearly every story about the game, missing is Lenzelle Smith Jr., the man who beat out Sibert for playing time. The two – and Sam Thompson – were locked into a battle during Ohio State’s Final Four season of 2011-12. Smith and Thompson won out, leading to Sibert’s journey west.
Thursday afternoon, Smith’s production level could be a major factor in the final score. Ohio State’s reached a point where LaQuinton Ross can be relied on for nearly 20 points. But a helping hand is needed. Smith’s entire career is spotted with highs and lows. A consistent offensive output has never been hammered down.
“I’ve got to help my team,” Smith said. “I’ve got to make shots. I’m on a little cold streak here, but it is correctable things.”
A quick fix for Ohio State would be not falling behind early. The Buckeyes have made a habit of it. It’s a recipe to be upset in the NCAA Tournament. A 10-minute spell of inefficient play can spell doom.
“We haven’t talked about it explicitly, but I think one of our biggest focuses coming into this tournament is valuing every possession,” senior point guard Aaron Craft said. “Since Lenzelle and I have been in college, the margin of defeat for us in the NCAA Tournament has been very, very little, and it comes down to one or two possessions a game.”
Don’t expect anything different in 2014.
- Ohio State is making its 30th appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes have advanced to play in 11 Final Fours.
- Ohio State owns the longest current streak of consecutive Sweet 16s with four.
- The Buckeyes' roster has a total of 342 points, 167 rebounds, 109 assists, 59 steals and 19 blocks in the NCAA Tournament.
- Ohio State compiled an 8-5 record against tournament teams this season.