If the Ohio State men's basketball team was upset at their missing inclusion from the NCAA Tournament, they sure haven't shown it. Accordingly, they're roaming the streets of midtown Manhattan.
Tuesday evening at 9 PM, the Buckeyes (22-13), the lone No. 1-seed remaining in the N.I.T.'s version of the Final Four at historic Madison Square Garden will do battle with the Mississippi Rebels (24-10).
Spurned by the NCAA selection committee, as was Ole' Miss', Ohio State was supposed to collapse into a sea of self-pity and depression. Instead, the Buckeyes have resumed the momentum right where they left it at the end of the regular season – with victory.
Nearly lying on the bubble emergency room table, flat-lined, Ohio State was revived with a pair of home wins to finish the season against ranked opponents Purdue and Michigan State. But before the euphoria wore off, the Spartans avenged the loss with a quarterfinal victory against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament just five days later, leaving the Buckeyes for dead when the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced the following Sunday evening.
And now, after convincing wins against North Carolina Asheville, California and in-state foe Dayton, Ohio State is looking to bring home the schools second-ever N.I.T. Championship beginning tomorrow against a team coached by a familiar face.
Former Cincinnati assistant and interim head coach Andy Kennedy has rejuvenated a Mississippi program that had fallen on hard times, with four consecutive non-winning seasons. But for the second straight year, the Rebels are in the postseason.
Mississippi got off to a surprising 15-1 start, before a 3-8 SEC swoon in January and February seriously diminished their NCAA Tournament hopes. Three straight wins to close out the regular season, much like the Buckeyes, temporarily revived their chances, but a first-round loss in the SEC Tournament left them settling for the N.I.T. – where they ripped off victories against Cal Fullerton, Nebraska and Virginia Tech to advance to the Big Apple.
Kennedy, who coached with Ohio State Director of Basketball Operations Dan Peters at Cincinnati, has a team rich in talent and scorers.
"They've got a very good basketball team," Matta said in a Friday teleconference to preview the upcoming match-up. "There are a number of guys that can beat you on a given night. That's the sign of a good team."
One of those guys, freshman guard Chris Warren, makes them go.
A 5-10 point guard from Orlando, Fla., Warren was under-recruited largely due to size. But in averaging 15.7 points, 4.6 assists and shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range his rookie season, Warren has silenced critics.
"He's special," Matta added, saying he was a lot like (Michigan State's) Drew Neitzel, (Syracuse's) Johnny Flynn and (Dayton's) Brian Roberts all-in-one. "Make no mistake about that."
Though Warren has been Mississippi's glue, it is arguably 6-8 senior forward that's Ohio State's Kryptonite.
Dwayne Curtis averaged 15.0 points per game this season for the Rebels, shooting 64.3 percent from the floor. However, it's his 9.5 rebounds per game and 14.6 percent offensive rebounding percentage that has got Matta sleepless in Chelsea –New York City's west side midtown neighborhood.
The Buckeyes have been problematic in stretches this season rebounding the basketball. Against California, however, and in the second half against the Flyers, Ohio State intensified their efforts on the glass.
Curtis gives the Buckeyes similar issues.
"That was one of the big challenges there in the second half against Dayton – we knew we had to do a better job of rebounding the basketball," Matta said. "I felt like what helped us was that we guarded the ball better in the second half and didn't force as many rotations which put us at a disadvantage on our blocking out.
"But Mississippi, that is one thing they do a great job of – rebounding the basketball," he added. "It's probably going to be one of the big keys to the game."
In the case of Ohio State, the resurgence has been due to rebounding, defense and most importantly, a more crisp offense.
In what is amounting to a victory lap, senior point guard Jamar Butler has been playing his best basketball in this last hoorah. But he's not been alone.
Fellow seniors Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger have provided leadership and stability. Sophomore David Lighty has increased his scoring and passing workload. And lastly, freshman Kosta Koufos has been more consistent than at any point this season while classmates Jon Diebler and Evan Turner have returned timely baskets.
The recent success by the Buckeyes, winning five of their last six, has been due to a subtle shift in strategy playing Butler off the ball. The plan, which was to get Butler some more shots through screening away from the ball, has worked well while Turner handles the point upon settling into a halfcourt offense.
"We were just trying to work our spacing a bit better and trying to alleviate the decision-making a bit for our guys," Matta explained.
Perhaps trumping everything for Ohio State has been the recent consistency.
"The big thing for us is trying to get guys all the way playing 40 minutes," he said, adding they (until lately) had not been getting good games from everyone at the same time.
The last six games, Ohio State has got exactly that from (most notably) four players.
Butler has averaged 18.2 points and 4.7 assists per game during that span, shooting 35-of-69 (50.7 percent) from the field. Koufos has added 15.0 points and five rebounds on 39-of-65 (60 percent) from the floor. Hunter has scored 11.7 points and grabbed 6.7 rebounds on 28-of-43 (65.1 percent) and Lighty has upped his production to 10.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, while lowering his turnovers to just over one and a half and shooting 51 percent.
Between the four of them, that's 55.4 points per game total and they've combined on 56.2 percent from the floor.
Being snubbed on selection Sunday, neither the Buckeyes nor Rebels likely expected to make it to New York. But they're crashing the party anyhow.
Though Mississippi got off to a much more promising start this season than perhaps the Buckeyes did, the source of Ohio State's frustration came from being not even a year removed from a National Championship appearance. Title game contestants are not supposed to miss the tournament the following year, much less both of them, like Florida and Ohio State did – first time that's happened since 1980.
And in a twist of irony, the two will provide America the first-ever championship rematch in the N.I.T. Championship the following season should both the Gators and Buckeyes beat Massachusetts and Mississippi respectively.
But until then, the story is the mere presence, and the fact Ohio State has its hands full with another hungry SEC opponent.
And that's not too shabby for a team not even supposed to be there. Ohio State missed that memo.