Rejoice Ohio State fans. Not only is your team playing its best basketball at the right time, but the NCAA Tournament committee rewarded them with perhaps its best draw in years. Fresh off of their Big Ten Tournament Championship in Chicago, Thad Matta’s Buckeyes are riding high right into the greatest event in all of American sports.
It is amazing to think about how far this Ohio State team has come when you look back at their midseason swoon. This was a team that was throttled at Illinois by 19 in January and destroyed at Wisconsin by 22 in February, in the midst of losing three of four. However, since that debacle in Madison, the Bucks have won eight straight, six of those coming against NCAA Tournament teams, including a road win over #1 seed Indiana.
The Buckeyes are peaking. With a stroke of magic, they were sent out West with a path to the Final Four as good as anyone has. As many of you know, I am Kansas graduate and I would gladly give up our number one seed for the two seed in the West with Ohio State’s draw.
Up first for Ohio State will be the Iona Gaels, who finished fourth in the MAAC regular season, but won their conference tournament. They have one recognizable name in point guard Lamont “MoMo” Jones, who you may remember ran the offense for Arizona during their run to the Elite Eight in 2011. While 15 seeds beat two seeds twice last season, I don’t think Matta’s crew will have much trouble with Iona.
Where things may get tricky is in the round of 32. Ohio State would face the winner of the Notre Dame/Iowa State tilt. This is a typical Mike Brey Irish team. They slow things down offensively and jam up the post with their bigs, forcing you to beat them by taking jump shots. Center Jack Cooley is a rugged presence on the interior who averages a double double. Junior guard Jerian Grant (son of former Bullet Harvey Grant) is their best perimeter player, and Pat Connaughton is their glue guy. This ND team is capable of winning a couple of games or bowing out in the round of 64.
They will meet up with a team that I love to watch, the Iowa State Cyclones. If you are a Buckeye fan, you should be rooting for Notre Dame to knock them off. Matchup wise, Fred Hoiberg’s five-out, spacing offense can be extremely hard to defend. Nobody loves to shoot the three ball more than the Clones, who lead the nation in three pointers made per game at just under 10. They drive and kick and find open shooters as good as any team in the country. All five guys on the floor like to shoot from deep, no matter what lineup have on the floor. Freshman Center Georges Niang would cause problems for Buckeye Centers Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel because he forces you to guard him on the perimeter, drawing the best rebounders away from the basket. Like Ohio State, ISU’s power forward Melvin Ejim is really a small forward playing the position. Deshawn Thomas and Ejim would be a interesting battle to watch. The guy to keep an eye of should this game occur would be sixth man Tyrus McGee. The Senior guard shoots threes at a 46% clip. 197 of his 307 shots came from deep.
The Bucks are a lot like Kansas defensively – that is where they win their games. There was perhaps no team that gave KU more fits than Iowa State did. In both regular season matchups, the game ended up in overtime where Iowa State hit 14 and 17 threes respectively. If they get hot, watch out.
The potential Sweet 16 matchup should Ohio State get there could be third seeded New Mexico, champs of the Mountain West, which was arguably the best conference in the country outside of the Big Ten. Steve Alford’s team doesn’t get the national love it deserves, despite a 29-5 season. Third year starting shooting guard Kendall Williams was conference player of the year. He went off for 46 at Colorado State two weeks ago in a big road win over another tournament team. He is joined in the backcourt by another veteran, Junior Tony Snell. Snell is a streaky shooter, but when he is on, the Lobos offense looks completely different. Their two bigs 7-0 sophomore Alex Kirk and Junior Cameron Bairstow are physical, smart players who both are double digits scorers.
At times, the guards have a tendancy to forget about the post players and they become too much of a jump shooting team. That is when the Lobos struggle. The Bucks go through lulls in scoring from time to time as well. The advantage New Mexico would have would be in the post. On the other side of it, asking Bairstow to chase Thomas around the perimeter would be a big plus for the Bucks. New Mexico is a very under-appreciated team. They are veteran laden with guys that have been through the wars before. Don’t sleep on them.
You can take a look at the top half of the West Region, but keep in mind, Ohio State only has to face one of those teams, should they advance to the Elite Eight. The Number one seed is Gonzaga, the kings of the West Coast conference. The Bulldogs only lost twice – at home to Illinois by 11 and at the buzzer to Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler was without their best player in that game, three-point bomber Rotnei Clarke. Since that night in January, Gonzaga has not lost. In fact, during this 14-game winning streak, only one team has played them to within less than double digits – BYU in Provo.
They have future NBA players in center Kelly Olynik (a potential first-team All-American center) and Elias Harris. Their guards – Gary Bell, Kevin Pangos, former walk-on Mike Hart, and David Stockton (yes, John’s kid) are all threats. Pangos and Bell can play, you have to see them to really appreicate how good they are. Mark Few has had a lot of good teams in Spokane over the past decade, but this one is his best. They are a true “team” in every sense of the word. They share the basketball beautifully and play from the inside out through Olynik, who is a matchup nightmare for anyone.
Others to watch in the top half include the fourth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats and old friend Wisconsin, who received the fifth seed. K-State is a team I wouldn’t concern myself with. They are a very solid defensive team and are coached by former Illini head man Bruce Weber, but outside of All-Big 12 performer Rodney McGruder, they struggle to score. The K-State/Wisconsin round of 32-game could out people to sleep and end up with a final score of 42-40. Do we really need to break down Bo Ball again? Badger coach Bo Ryan somehow every single year has his team in prime position, despite a lack of great talent. But they are so smart, so calculated, play terrific defense, and rarely make the killer mistake. After their run to the Big Ten title game and with their two wins over Indiana in tow, Wisconsin is a sexy pick to knock off Gonzaga and end up in the Elite Eight.
No matter how we all think it may break, nobody ever is right and nobody knows what will happen. That is the beauty of the NCAA Tournament, the greatest event in all of sports.
Photo: Mike Carter, USA TODAY Sports