Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham
CHICAGO -- Exactly one month ago, the Ohio State basketball team was headed home on a flight from Madison, Wis., having just suffered a 71-49 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin.
Today, the Buckeyes (26-7, 13-5) have not only avenged their beat down from the Badgers, but they enter March Madness as one of the nation's hottest teams, and a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
"I'm so proud of this basketball team and what they accomplished," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "This team has done a tremendous job of staying together."
Since their mauling in Madison, the Buckeyes have not lost a game, rattling off eight consecutive victories, including a 50-43 win over Wisconsin in Sunday's Big Ten tournament championship game. Ohio State may have finished second in the conference's regular season standings to Indiana, but that wasn't enough to keep the NCAA tournament selection committee from naming the Buckeyes the West Regional's No. 2 seed, which will land them in Dayton, Ohio on Friday for an opening round matchup with No. 15 seed Iona (20-13, 11-7 MAAC).
After the tournament's selection show, Ohio State players were appreciative of their draw, which will take them just 70 miles from Columbus for the tournament's opening weekend.
"It helps tremendously," senior center Evan Ravenel said of Ohio State playing its first and a potential second game of the tournament in Dayton. "It gives a chance for our fans to come out support us and give us that extra juice that we need to win."
Should the Buckeyes advance past the Gaels, they'll take on the winner of Friday's matchup between No. 7 seed Notre Dame (25-9, 11-7 Big East) and No. 10 Iowa State (22-11, 11-7 Big 12) on Sunday. A win over either the Fighting Irish or Cyclones would send Ohio State to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16.
There, the Buckeyes would meet up with either No. 3 seed New Mexico, No. 6 Arizona, No. 11 Belmont, or No. 14 Harvard for the right to play in the Elite Eight, which will determine who will represent the West Regional in the Final Four in Atlanta, Ga. on April 6. Ohio State's opponent in a potential Elite Eight matchup would be whichever team from the top half of its region manages to win its first three games of the tournament, and is comprised of a pool of including No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 4 Kansas State, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 9 Wichita State, No. 12 Ole Miss, the No. 13 seed play-in game winner of Boise State and La Salle, and No. 16 Southern.
In the event that the Buckeyes make it to the tournament's second weekend and appear in the Sweet 16- and potentially the Elite Eight- they'll travel out west to Los Angeles, Calif., where the Staples Center will serve as the West Regional's host site. That's enough to excite Ohio State star Deshaun Thomas, who would welcome a trip out to the bright lights of Hollywood.
"That would be nice," Thomas said of a possible trip to Los Angeles. "It's beautiful. It'd be good if we win these games and get there ... it's a big motivation."
But before the Buckeyes can worry about playing on the court that Kobe Bryant calls home, they must first focus on the opening rounds and their upcoming matchup with Iona. The Gaels may be a 15-seed, but they possess the nation's third-leading scorer in Lamont Jones (23 points per game) and rank second in the country in team scoring with 80.7 points per game.
"They're a great team. There's no bad teams left in the tournament," OSU guard Aaron Craft said. "They like to get up, push the ball up and down a lot. It's going to be a K.Y.P. (keep your poise) game, and we'll see if we can have some fun with it."
The Buckeyes, however, won't only be favored to beat Iona, but perhaps advance all the way to Atlanta for a second consecutive trip to the Final Four. Gonzaga earned the regional's No. 1 seed byway of its 31-2 record, but have played the nation's 97th strength of schedule- the worst of any No. 1 seed in the past 20 years.
A potential matchup with the Zags wouldn't come for another two weeks for OSU, and there's three games standing in both teams' way before either one could get there. But with eight consecutive wins under their belt, many will view the Buckeyes as the team to beat in the West Regional in the one-and-done and always exciting season that is March Madness.
"We need to take it one game at a time and hopefully there's more than one that we can play," Craft said.
"The fun's just about to begin."
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