Tuesday night in the opening round of the N.I.T., 7,117 people saw crisp passing, scolding-hot shooting and several energetic hustle plays from a high-octane offense from the Buckeyes. Yes, that was The Ohio State Buckeyes’ men’s basketball team.
Ohio State (20-13) knocked off the North Carolina – Asheville Bulldogs 84-66 in front of a sparse but excitable crowd. For the first time in over three months, Ohio State was able to step away from the rigors of a physical defensive-minded conference opponent, and spread their wings and fly.
And it showed.
Though UNC Asheville remained competitive for much of the game, the Buckeyes put on a shooting clinic, finishing 56 percent from the field, including 10-of-21 from 3-point range. It was an extension of the past three games where Ohio State’s offense has improved dramatically, twice against Michigan State and once against Purdue.
But the third game, a quarterfinal loss to the Spartans, was enough to keep Ohio State out of the NCAA Tournament and in the N.I.T as a No. 1-seed hosting the Bulldogs.
“I really have to take my hat off to Ohio State,” said UNCA head coach Eddie Biedenbach after the game. “Thad Matta is one of the best coaches in the country. He lost three really good players last year and they are still really good and managed to beat Michigan State and Purdue down the stretch.”
Matta won a 20th game for the seventh consecutive season to begin his coaching career – joining Gonzaga’s Mark Few as the only active coaches to accomplish that feat. It was also the first time an Ohio State head basketball coach has done that the first four seasons in charge.
But unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Matta has only a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances to show for it thanks to a self-imposed tournament ban in his first season, and this latest snub by the NCAA Selection committee.
Still, thanks to improvement from sophomore David Lighty, continued excellence shown by senior point guard Jamar Butler and contributions from freshmen Kosta Koufos, Evan Turner and Jon Diebler, the Buckeyes rolled to an easy victory and advance to the second round to play the winner of California and New Mexico Monday evening in St. John Arena.
Ohio State minimized the impact of 7-7 center Kenny George, thanks to a fearless attitude from 6-9 Othello Hunter. Hunter continually attacked George in the 27 minutes the gentle giant was on the floor, scoring 16 points on 8-of-10 from the field.
“We had two different game-plans coming into to tonight because they are two different teams with him,” Matta said. “When he wasn’t in, we planned on going inside. When he was in, we wanted to move the ball fast.”
The ball-movement showed both when he was in, and when he wasn’t.
For the first time in a while, the Buckeyes looked fresh. They showed the eyes of a tiger – a hungry bunch that looked motivated to win the tournament, as opposed to a group pouting and moping for not hearing their names called on the NCAA Tournament selection show.
Butler was the catalyst. Smiling and having fun, he led Ohio State with 21 points and 10 assists. He shot 5-of-10 from deep and was seen applauding his teammates on several occasions.
But Koufos (15 points), Lighty (13 points) and Diebler (8 points) helped a balanced attack slowly pull-away late. It was the mark of an apparently improving young team that could ride into Madison Square Garden for the N.I. T. Championship. It’s also possible that for the first time in history, two teams that met in the NCAA Championship one season could meet in the N.I.T. Championship the next if both Ohio State and Florida can get through four rounds simultaneously.
“Coming into the game, I was a little concerned,” Matta added. “However, the team had an intense and active practice and the best shoot around. That really gave me hope coming into tonight’s game. They had great energy and I felt we were in good shape.”
Ohio State must get through the Bears or Lobos, which play late Wednesday evening. Then, if Ohio State escapes, they would host a third-round game, possibly against either Cleveland State or Dayton. The Flyers, which also missed the NCAA Tournament in part because of an injury to freshman forward Chris Wright, is the No. 3-seed in Ohio State’s region – Illinois State is the No. 2-seed.
For the Gators to set up a possible rematch, they must beat San Diego State tonight. Then, Florida would have to get through the Creighton-Rhode Island winner, and possibly the top-seed in their region Arizona State. If the top seeds hold serve, with Florida as the exception, it would be a Final Four of Ohio State against Virginia Tech and Florida against Syracuse.
Before that’s possible, Ohio State must maintain the intensity (and execution) shown Tuesday.
It was easily the best ball-movement of the season for the Buckeyes. Twenty of Ohio State’s 36-made field goals were assisted. For good measure, the Buckeyes committed just nine turnovers to UNC Asheville’s 21.
No need for a double-take. Believe it or not, that was the same Ohio State team seen earlier losing at Iowa and Michigan.
Last night, the VCA crowd sure didn’t mind. And Matta didn’t either.