Ohio State didn’t reach its goal this season. For the first time in eight years the Buckeyes won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament, but there’s nothing they can do about it now.
The best Thad Matta’s team can do now is replicate Ohio State’s 2008 performance with an NIT championship and the road to Madison Square Garden starts with a home game tonight against in-state opponent Akron.
The sixth-seeded Zips (26-8) automatically qualified for the NIT by virtue of a regular-season MAC championship and were further rewarded with an opportunity to defeat a premier program 126 miles south of campus in the form of the third-seeded Buckeyes (20-13).
“We have tremendous respect for Akron and know how good they are,” Matta said. “Quite honestly I think they should have been in the NCAA tournament, not sure how they got a six seed in this tournament. As I’ve said we’re a very young, youthful basketball team, but I think our guys are looking forward to it just because of the way they play and what they do and that sort of thing.”
What the Zips do is launch threes. Over 50 percent of Akron’s field goal attempts come from long range and the Zips are second nationally in three-point attempts with 1,027 attempted, connecting on 38.9 percent. It’s far from a one-man show from distance as five different players attempt more than three three-pointers per game.
The Buckeyes have faced teams that like to fire from distance already this season as Michigan, Illinois and Northwestern all sit in the top 50 nationally in three point attempts. Ohio State was 4-0 against those teams.
“Just trying to get our guys to understand that they will pull from anywhere at any time,” Matta said. “They run great actions and they’ve got a great balance of inside out. It’ll be a unique experience for our guys just in terms of how they play.”
The inside part of that inside-out equation is mostly Isaiah Johnson. The 6-10, 295-pound center is averaging a team-high 13.6 points per game. The soft-handed big is an adept passer from the post, averaging 1.6 assists per game.
Between Johnson and the multitude of three-point shooters on the Akron roster, the Buckeyes can’t focus on just one or two players, Matta said.
In addition to worrying about the Zips, there’s some concern that the young Buckeyes may lack motivation as they enter college basketball’s secondary tournament.
“With this group having an opportunity to continue to play is a good thing,” Matta said. “Had a good practice (Monday) and I like these guys in the gym. (Tonight) is just another opportunity for us to get better.”