With West Region Crumbling, Buckeyes Looked Like Real Deal
By Brandon Castel
DAYTON, Ohio — Ohio State beat a team it was supposed to beat on Friday night, and beat it badly.
In a win-or-go-home tournament, where the next upset is waiting around every corner, and nobody is safe – not even No. 1 seeds anymore – the Buckeyes will take the victory and advance.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“When we got back together Monday night, we showed them tape of 2 seeds going down last year, saying , hey, this is a reality,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said after his team’s 95-70 blowout victory over 15-seed Iona.
“It happened last year. We have to get ourselves ready to go. I think getting in here and getting a fast pace – we didn't get up and down in here as much because we had a very difficult practice yesterday in Columbus – but I was excited to see us moving and flowing.”
It was only Iona, a team that blew a 25-point lead against BYU during a play-in game last year, but the Buckeyes looked like a contender at UD Arena on Friday night. A real contender, not like some of the other names who advanced in the West Region this week.
Gone is 3-seed New Mexico, a trendy pick to make the Final Four out of a weak region. They fell at the hands of 14-seed Harvard late Thursday night. Yes, that Harvard.
The same goes for 4-seed Kansas State, as former Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s group was upset by 13-seed La Salle – one of four teams that played their way into the NCAA Tournament this year.
Top-seeded Gonzaga narrowly escaped becoming the first victim of a 16-seed in the field of 64, but 5-seed Wisconsin wasn’t so fortunate in its matchup with 12-seed Ole Miss. Even 8-seed Pitt fell victim to an upset at the hands of 9-seed Wichita State.
The only other higher seed out of the West to advance over the last two days was 6-seed Arizona. The Buckeyes will face 10-seed Iowa State, who blew by 7-seed Notre Dame in the late game in Dayton on Friday night.
All the while, Ohio State was running and dunking and scoring in bunches against a brash Iona team that came into the game talking about upsets and confidence and all that jazz.
“This was about our team and how we needed to play defense together, and that's really how we did a good job of taking them out of their offense and kind of making them have to go one on one at times,” said OSU point guard Aaron Craft.
“We did a good job of staying connected. We also weren't doing it at times, like coach alluded to, but this time of year is about finding a way to win and moving on. So we get to play again. That's what it's all about.”
Sometimes, in sports, we tend to overanalyze things. Because Gonzaga only beat Southern by six, it means they are no longer a contender for the national championship. If that were the case, UConn would have been eliminated about 10 times during its national championship run two years ago.
But there’s a lot to be said about the way these Buckeyes are playing, and not just Friday night. Iona was clearly overmatched. They had no interior presence, and not much semblance of a defense against a team that plays a whole bunch of it.
They thought, foolishly, they could just run Ohio State out of the gym by pressing and pushing the ball up the floor for 40 minutes. What they got instead was a Buckeye team that had been waiting to play that style of basketball since they started Big Ten play back in late December.
“We said going in, if they want to run, let's run,” Matta said.
And run they did, up and down the court until they had worn Iona into submission. The Buckeyes forced the Gaels into 19 turnovers, then turned those into 29 points at the other end.
“I think we may have surprised them a little bit,” said Sam Thompson, who hand-delivered eight of those points on four alley-oop slam dunks as Ohio State ran Iona out of the building.
“Defensively, we were able to get some stops to get out in the open court off of missed shots and turnovers. We got some easy ones early on, and I don't know if they were expecting that or not. We did a good job of converting when we had numbers early in the game, and we really set the tone.”
Not just for this game, but for the entire tournament. The Buckeyes won’t face too many teams that play the style Iona did Friday night. They probably won’t run into anymore who want to try it unless they meet up with Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals.
That wouldn’t be until the Final Four. With the way the Buckeyes are playing right now, it would be easy to think that far ahead. When they have it all going the way they did Friday, there might not be a team in the country that wants to face them.
Then again, things can change in a hurry this time of year.
“I don't know, in this tournament, if you could say anybody has a hot hand,” Matta said.
“I think, if you're in a conference race and you've got common opponents, you know going into the game that what the other team is. But not now.”
The Buckeyes will face another high-scoring attack on Sunday when they face Iowa State (12:15 pm. ET, CBS), a team that lost two overtime games to Kansas earlier this year. They also beat 7-seed Notre Dame handedly on Friday night, but Sunday they will face an Ohio State team riding high on a nine-game winning streak.
“I like the way our team is playing,” Matta said.
“I like the fact that we're winning games right now. We've got to be better tomorrow than we were today and same thing on Sunday.”
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