The 2010-11 version of the Ohio State basketball team wasn’t one of the two squads Thad Matta has led to the Final Four in his eight previous years with the program, but it still has an argument for being the deepest group he has ever coached.
That year the Buckeyes boasted a lethal combination of veterans and youthful, yet transcendent talents. Seniors Jon Diebler, the three-point specialists, and David Lighty, one of the premier defenders in college basketball, led a team that also presented threats with junior offensive whiz William Buford, and freshmen versions of big man Jared Sullinger and defensive menace Aaron Craft.
That team lost only two games prior to the NCAA Tournament, dominating on its way to the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
But as Matta has always been quick to point out – the Big Dance is all about matchups. Ohio State found out exactly what its coach meant that season.
Despite earning the No. 1 overall seed – and having athletic director Gene Smith serving as the chair of the selection committee – the Buckeyes had arguably one of the toughest roads to the Final Four of any team in the tournament.
“It was a good thing Gene was in charge (of the selections) that year,” Matta quipped. “But that was definitely, definitely a tough bracket. That was a challenge.
“As a coach, you can whine and complain, but you sort of just say ‘It is what it is, it’s who we have to play.’ ”
The Buckeyes were placed in the same region as three traditional college basketball powers – North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky – programs that now combine to have 37 collective Final Four appearances.
And it caught up to Ohio State, who fell to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Newark’s Prudential Center after former Wildcats point guard Brandon Knight buried a contested jumper with five seconds remaining in the game to lift his team.
Ohio State shot a chilly 32.8 percent from the floor in that game – Buford alone made only two of his 16 field goal attempts – and the season once filled with national title aspirations had come to an abrupt end.
“I didn’t think (too much about the matchups before) because of the team we had,” said senior big man Evan Ravenel, who was on the team but forced to sit out per NCAA transfer rules, of the competition that year. “We had everything we needed. We had great defenders, outside shooters and post players. We had everything. I didn’t think for a second about the other teams.”
Ravenel – and the rest of the Buckeyes – aren’t thinking about it this year, either. But on the surface, it seems that this year’s path to the Final Four could be more manageable for an Ohio State team that appears to be peaking at the right time.
Maybe the selection committee is throwing the Buckeyes a bone.
Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the region and New Mexico is No. 3, but absent from Ohio State’s portion of the bracket are teams with historical precedent for having consistent success in the NCAA Tournament.
The furthest Gonzaga has ever advanced in the NCAA Tournament is the Elite Eight in 1999, but the Bulldogs have never made it to the final weekend of college basketball even with appearances in the tournament every year since.
New Mexico, meanwhile, has made it to the NCAA Tournament for the second-consecutive season, but the furthest the Lobos have advanced were Sweet 16 appearances in 1968 and 1974.
“They wanted us to be the No. 2 seed, and that was a good feeling,” Ravenel said. “I feel like I am happy with the draw we got, but it is a challenge because you don’t know what you’re walking into. It’ll be fun.”
Past success – or lack thereof – isn’t going to determine games in the?sporting event that has become?most synonymous for setting the stage for major upsets, and the Buckeyes echoed one another when promising to approach their first-round game against No. 15-seed Iona on Friday as if they were playing Kansas or Duke.
But the fact remains that beating teams that have made it to college basketball’s largest stage consistently presents different challenges, and it’s not by coincidence that elite coaches typically lead those programs.
Ohio State won’t have to face traditional programs to reach the Final Four this year, and because of it has suddenly become one of the trendier picks for success in the tournament this year.
The Buckeyes, however, promise that won’t effect their approach.
“It’s nice that people are talking about us and we’re getting some love, but you have to respect any opponent that you play in this tournament because they are in it for a reason,” sophomore Sam Thompson said. “If you don’t, you could get beat.”
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