Thursday, March 21

Buckeyes surge into Big Dance

The last time I was talking Buckeye basketball on this blog, I was rather pessimistic (although in my defense, we weren't playing at a very high level). Since that time, Ohio St has rattled off eight straight wins, including one over then #2 ranked Indiana in Assembly Hall, a game in which I called at the time "the most impressive win in the Thad Matta era," and three victories in three days to claim the Big Ten Tournament Championship. I realize that Gonzaga hasn't lost since January and Louisville's performance at Madison Square Garden last week was phenomenal, but no one can boast the type of resume that the Bucks can put out there over the past month.

Things could not have looked much worse for Ohio St on February 19 when they were slaughtered in Madison. Staring down missing a bye in the B1G tourney and a 6 or 7 seed in the NCAA bracket, it would have been very easy to play defeated for the rest of the season. Matta's squad did the exact opposite, embracing a rare underdog role and bringing home W's in each of their last five regular season games, all pretty handily too (an eight-point margin over Michigan St being the closest contest). The Bucks were rewarded with a 2 seed and first-round bye in the conference tournament, followed by a matchup with Nebraska in the Quarters, so basically two byes. After a 21-point pasting of the Huskers, OSU took the rubber match from the Spartans in the Semi Finals in a back-and-forth, hard fought game by two very quality teams. Poetic justice was in full-effect in the other Semi game, as Wisconsin upset Indiana to set up a Finals rematch between the Badgers and Buckeyes. Yes, the same Badger team that handed the Buckeyes the aforementioned 22-point beat down just four weeks Pryor. With revenge on their minds, Ohio St outlasted Wisconsin in a typical UW/OSU slugfest, 50-43 to claim the B1G crown.

For their efforts during this impressive run, Ohio St received a #2 seed in the West Region. A team from Ohio would typically be a little salty having to go out West, but really the Buckeyes could not have landed a better bracket. They will still play their first two games in Dayton, OH before they would have to hit the coast. Should they make it to the Sweet 16, that and the Elite 8 game will be played in Los Angeles.

OSU will open with the #15 Iona Gaels out of the MAAC conference Friday night at 7:15. Assuming last year's back-to-back 15 over 2 stunners was an aberration, the Buckeyes should be moving on to face the Notre Dame/Iowa St winner on Sunday. Both teams finished with identical 11-7 conference records, with ND finishing 6th in the loaded Big East and ISU 4th in the Big 12. The Cyclones are led by senior Forward Will Clyburn, while the Irish boast the impressive duo of Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley. Neither team would be an easy out, but certainly the higher-seeded Buckeyes would come in as relatively heavy favorites.

Looking ahead to possible future matchups in LA, we see why Ohio St is the trendy pick to come out of the West. The top seeds in the region are as follows - 1. Gonzaga, 3. New Mexico, 4 Kansas St, 5. Wisconsin, 6. Arizona. Are those teams really scaring anyone? I give the 'Zags a ton of credit - they've had a fabulous season and earned every right to be represented with a top seed. But let's be honest. You have one game to get to the Final Four, who do you want to play - Gonzaga, Louisville, Kansas, or Indiana? No disrespect intended for the Bulldogs, but my answer to that question isn't even close. New Mexico is a team like Gonzaga, in that they are both from a Mid-Major with an impressive record (29-5 for the Lobos). Honestly I've never seen them play this year so for all I know they could be the best team in the nation, but again, I'm not exactly shaking in my boots at the prospect of facing them.

Kansas St is another team that I don't know a whole lot about, but seems to resemble the Buckeyes of a month ago. They take care of business against weaker opponents (no losses against unranked teams), but just can't seem to get over the hump and topple a giant, with the sole exception of a close win at home over Florida (losses to michigan and Gonzaga in non-conference, 0-1 vs. Iowa St, a split with Oklahoma St, and most notable 0-3 vs. Kansas). The Wildcats will have to find a way to stop La Salle's fiery 3-point shooting just to make it out of Round 1. Wisconsin is probably the scariest team of this bunch other than maybe the 'Zags, especially since we've seen what they can do at their best this year. But the fact that we beat them twice should give the Bucks all the confidence they need. The Badgers also face a very tough First Round test against SEC Tourney Champs Ole Miss, who got hosed with a 12 seed. Arizona has been in an absolute free-fall since being ranked in the top 10 earlier in the season, and my most confident First Round upset (along with Bucknell over Butler) is for Belmont to knock off the 'Cats.

So really when you brake down this West Region, the only thing standing in Ohio St's way to Atlanta is themselves. If they are playing like they have been of late, there is no reason they should not be cutting down the nets on their way to the Dirrty South. Enjoy the Madness everyone, and as always...


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