Starting Five: Ohio State NCAA Tournament Opener Preview
A 27-7 regular season record and a share of the Big Ten championship earned the No. 7-ranked Ohio State men’s basketball team a No. 2 seed in the Boston region of the NCAA Tournament. But before the Buckeyes can find themselves in Boston or the Final Four in New Orleans, they must first advance past the tournament’s opening weekend, which they’ll spend in Pittsburgh.
A Brand New Season
After playing in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, which carried one-and-done type implications, the Buckeyes will now play in a true one-and-done atmosphere, where a loss will mean the end of their season. OSU coach Thad Matta said that it’s important for his team to understand advice that was given to him by legendary football coach Lou Holtz before Matta’s 2007 team made a run to the Final Four.
“The thing that you have to understand is just be better than the team you’re playing at this point in the season,” Matta said. “So many times, you look and say, ‘well this team won by this many.’ It doesn’t matter. You just have to be better than the team that you’re playing at that particular point.”
The Buckeyes’ leading scorer and rebounder Jared Sullinger likes where his team’s mindset is heading into the big dance.
“The biggest thing with this basketball team is knowing tomorrow’s not promised,” Sullinger said. “Today might be our last practice in the Schott if we don’t handle our business on Thursday, so we just have to stay focused and understand that it’s a one-game season.”
Not Missing Big Ten Play
One benefit of moving on to tournament play is that it gets the Buckeyes out of their Big Ten schedule, where they played 21 games against a league comprised of the most physical and highly-ranked in the nation. Sullinger said that he’s looking forward to taking a break from playing the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin on a nightly basis.
“You play against multiple, multiple type defenses in the Big Ten,” Sullinger said. “We’re going to get some different refs, we’re not going to get Big Ten refs, so you just got to feel your way out of that."
Playing new opponents will present the opportunity to use different sets that haven’t yet been used in the 2011-12 season. Whether those changes will be drastic or not, remains to be seen.
“We will have some new things in for Thursday night, no question about that,” Matta said. “I don’t know if it will be like- I used to always watch when coach (Jim) Tressel used to play Michigan and he’d run plays and you’d be like, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ It won’t be quite like that.”
The first round of the tournament will bring the Buckeyes No. 15-seeded Loyola (24-8, 13-5), the MAAC’s conference tournament champion. Matta said he’s been impressed so far by what he’s seen from the Greyhounds on film.
“Obviously, a very, very good basketball team. That league got two teams in, Iona being an at-large team,” Matta said. "They play extremely hard. They’ve got five guys in essence that average double figures. I think they’ll play up-tempo, but then they’ve also got a deliberate offense to what they’re doing."
Loyola is led by forward Erik Etherly, who is averaging 13.5 points per game and guard Dylon Cormier, who adds 13.4 points a night. Sullinger said that he wasn’t sure exactly how he’d match-up with the Greyhounds defensively, but that he’s fine playing in the post or on the perimeter.
“I’m not no (Kentucky center) Anthony Davis or nothing. I’m not going to block no shots,” Sullinger said. “If they take me away from the basket, they take me away from the basket. If they post me up, they post me up. I just got to play my game.”
No Help Necessary
One way in which fans assume coaches deal with uncertainty in opponents is by calling other coaches for advice. Matta, however, said that this isn’t necessarily always the case.
“We had enough tape to have an understanding of what we think they want to do,” Matta said. “A lot like us, in conferences you can’t talk- you’re not supposed to talk to your conference school’s opposing teams.”
Sullinger said that the Buckeyes don’t need to use schemes drawn up by other program’s coaching staffs because they get all the preparation they need in their practice gym.
“We got all of our confidence from practice,” Sullinger said. “If you look at it, you’ve got Jordan Sibert, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Trey McDonald, Amir Williams, J.D. Weatherspoon. They all play against us in practice and without them guys, this basketball team wouldn’t be that good.”
Another reason the Buckeyes won’t need much help in preparing for Loyola is the defensive presence that sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas has provided over the past few weeks. Known primarily for his offense, Thomas drew the assignment of covering Draymond Green in the Big Ten Championship game and held the Big Ten Player of the Year to 12 points.
“He’s a great player and he’s making the natural progression from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Matta said. “Defensively, he’s really a prideful kid. I’ve learned that about him.”
As a classmate and former AAU opponent of Thomas’, Sullinger too has been impressed by the improvement that the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer has made on defense.
“He did a great job,” Sullinger said. “If you look at what he did on the defensive end, even though his shot wasn’t falling, on the defensive end, he did a tremendous job on Draymond Green, holding him to 12 points.