Less than 24 hours after learning they would not be playing in the NCAA Tournament, the members of the Ohio State men's basketball took toe the floor in preparation for the "other" postseason tournament – the MasterCard NIT. Faced with the disappointment of not qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, last season's national runner-up squad could have responded in one of two ways.
They could have responded with indifference, or they could have vowed to make the best of their situation and try to secure a return trip to Madison Square Garden and a spot in the NIT Final Four.
Although now it is fairly easy to see which route they opted to go, head coach Thad Matta admitted he was initially not sure how his young team would respond to the situation. It did not take long for him to figure it out, however.
"We got over it when we went back to practice on (that) Monday," he said. "I thought guys' spirits were flying high. Guys are seeing themselves getting better and I've been pleased with their work ethic and their attention to detail."
Since the slight suffered at the hands of the NCAA selection committee, the Buckeyes have rattled off three straight wins against UNC Asheville, California and Dayton, advancing to the semifinal round of the NIT in the process.
OSU took part in the NIT Season Tip-Off to begin the season and advanced to the finals before falling to Texas A&M. In all, the Buckeyes took part in two games in New York City – "We were there for two games but only played one," Matta said – and defeated Syracuse in the process.
Like the Orangemen, though, OSU was forced to find ways to salvage a season that did not appear to turn around until it was too late. To guard against a potential letdown, Matta developed separate strategies to motivate both the young players and the veterans should he find their effort lagging in practice.
That turned out to be wasted work, as the Buckeyes apparently hit the court running in their preparations for Asheville.
"The way that they've come out and played, I really haven't touched it," Matta said of that plan. "I think we said, ‘Let's try to get back to New York,' but we really have been more low-key in saying, ‘This is who we are, this is what we have to do get better, let's go play.' I think that has helped this team."
That does not mean the Buckeyes are blissfully unaware that they did not make the NCAA Tournament, however.
"Of course, we all want to be in that type of situation especially in the NCAA Tournament going for a national championship, but I try not to worry about it too much," sophomore David Lighty said. "What happens, happens. I can't change it."
But getting ready to play in the NIT required no special speeches from the upperclassmen or extra motivation doled out from the coaching staff. According to Lighty, the Buckeyes simply realized the situation gave them a chance to continue playing basketball.
And that was apparently all they needed to know.
"We were all disappointed from not making it to the tournament," he said. "But we still got a chance to play the game that we love. It was just in ourselves to finish the season off right and play well."
The focus in practice has not been on trying to get the players to concentrate on the next opponent and not on the circumstances surrounding the game, Matta said. That narrow-minded approach has also helped the Buckeyes move past the disappointment of not making the Big Dance.
In the long run, the extended season the Buckeyes are enjoying might prove more beneficial than what likely could have been an early exit in the NCAA Tournament. Given the choice earlier in the season, Matta said he would prefer making the tournament and losing early as opposed to making a run in the NIT.
But now as his team was preparing to head back to NYC, the head coach had changed his tune a little.
"There's pros and cons to both," he said. "I don't know how I would feel if we were done playing right now. I usually go into a depression mode for a stage when the season's over. I keep checking my watch; it's March 28 and we're still hooping. This is great."