BOISE, Idaho – When Ohio State and Gonzaga met in the PK80 Invitational on Thanksgiving night, the odds were heavily stacked against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was just five games into the Chris Holtmann era in Columbus, and took on the Bulldogs in Portland, Ore., just more than a five-hour drive for Gonzaga fans from Spokane, Wash. The game was also played after midnight eastern time.
The Buckeyes hung around for about 10 minutes before an 11-0 run by Gonzaga to end the first half ultimately sunk Ohio State, which was never able to climb back into the game.
Months later, though, Ohio State has hit its stride. The Buckeyes finished second in the Big Ten regular-season standings. Their coach and top player took home coach and player of the year awards in the conference. Ohio State was ultimately rewarded with a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After an 81-73 win over South Dakota State on Thursday, Ohio State is set for a rematch with the Zags on Saturday, and this time around the Buckeyes feel like a different team.
"I am happy to play them. Obviously they beat us earlier in the season, but this is what you want in the tournament is to play teams that beat you early on," Keita Bates-Diop said Thursday. "We're not the same team, but neither are they, so it should be a good matchup.
"(We're) completely different. That was like our sixth or seventh game with a new coaching staff and a bunch of new players I hadn't really played with," Bates-Diop continued. "We hadn't really gelled yet. Like I said, it's a completely different team. Complete opposites."
In the first round of games at Taco Bell Arena on Thursday, Ohio State wasn't the only team that had to squeak out a close victory against the lower-seeded opponent. No. 4 seed Gonzaga was tied with No. 13 UNC Greensboro in the closing minutes before coming away with a close 68-64 victory over the Spartans.
“We're not the same team, but neither are they so it should be a good matchup.”– Keita Bates-Diop on rematch with Gonzaga
In the days leading up to the tournament, Holtmann called Mark Few for tips on how to defend South Dakota State's Mike Daum, who eventually scored 27 points in the loss to Ohio State. Holtmann joked that Few was happy to give him tips on the Jackrabbits because he wanted to see the Buckeyes again in the second round.
"I called Mark at about 10 o'clock from my office on Monday night, and I said, 'Mark, what's going on?' And he said, 'Just drinking a beer looking at the mountains here,' and I said, 'Mark, I am in the office with (assistant coach Ryan Pedon) putting together a game plan for South Dakota State, something's not right here,'" Holtmann said with a laugh. "I really like (Mark) he is one of the best coaches out there.
"I don't know how much it necessarily helped, because (South Dakota State) is different from what they were last year, but he was able to give me his thoughts. Shoot, after playing us, he wants to play us again," Holtmann continued. "He was hoping for that matchup. He would have given me his whole scouting report on them after he played us."
Pedon, who was credited after the win over South Dakota State for drawing up the play that sprung Kam Williams for the four-point play that ultimately put Ohio State ahead for good, said that in late November, the Buckeyes weren't prepared to beat teams of Gonzaga's caliber. Now, his team is one win away from advancing to the second weekend for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
"I think early on when we played (Gonzaga), we were still learning how to win games. Certainly Gonzaga is a top-10, top-15 team, and I don't know that we were at a point at that particular time to put 40 minutes together to beat a team of that caliber," Pedon said. "We have a lot of respect for them. We have grown a lot as a team and a program since then, and what an opportunity we are going to have in 48 hours to lay it on the line and play for an opportunity to go to the Sweet 16."