Thad Matta gathered his team Monday to show them clips from Lehigh’s upset of Duke in last year’s NCAA Tournament, one of two instances from the 2012 tournament of a No. 15-seeded team upsetting its No. 2 counterpart.
It was four days before No. 2-seed Ohio State was set to face No. 15 Iona, but Matta wanted to take no chance that his Buckeyes would take a win for granted in the opening game of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Then Iona did Matta a favor, making bold comments to the media before the game asserting that it expected to beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes were listening.
“Initially, we were just playing Iona,” sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross said. “But after we saw the stuff they said in the New York Post, we kind of took it personally and were like, ‘You guys can’t talk to us like that.’ ”
Ohio State took the extra fuel and harnessed it before cruising to a 95-70 win over the Gaels on Friday night in Dayton. The win, Ross said, felt better because the Buckeyes were out to prove something.
“I think Iona just wrote a big check that they couldn’t cash, man,” Ross said. “They came out with all the noise before the game and we just had to come out there and shut them up… It felt great because after the game they were quiet.”
Had no comments been made leading into the game, maybe Ohio State would have approached it differently. Maybe the Buckeyes would have been “just playing Iona,” and that wouldn’t have been uncommon in today’s NCAA Tournament where normalcy has replaced anomaly in regards to upsets.
Ohio State instead won in convincing fashion to advance to play No. 10 Iowa State on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. ET, and the Cyclones come into the game having done what has become so common in todays’ tournament by topping higher-seeded No. 7 Notre Dame 76-58 later in the evening.
“This is the tournament and any team can beat anyone and we always have to remember that because we don’t want to be next,” sophomore guard Shannon Scott said. “We are playing a team that beat a higher seed now, but that’s not a surprise anymore. That’s what happens all the time in this tournament. If we’re not ready, we could be next.”
Ohio State has seen the destruction first hand. What remains of the West Region is only proof of what can happen, and what is still likely to come.
The No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the region have already lost to lower-seeded teams, and No. 1 Gonzaga survived an upset bid from No. 16 Southern on Thursday by escaping with a 64-58 win.
Gone are teams like New Mexico, Kansas State and Wisconsin, all of which were trendy picks to at least make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. Now, all of their seasons are over.
“Teams underestimate teams,” junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “You get a top seed and you think well your first game is going to be an easy game. Well, that team won their conference championship and did the things to get them rolling. If you don’t come out prepared, they are going to beat you.”
It’s an interesting balance in the NCAA Tournament, where maintaining focus on the next opponent often falls to the wayside.
Teams watch film, read newspapers and see the highlights on national television. It’s human nature for them to come to their own conclusions.
“I feel like some of the mid-major teams play harder than some of these big name schools because they are coming in (cocky),” Ross said. “We watch them on film and are like, ‘They’re not that good,’ but they can get on the roll and the game is over before you know it. You always have to respect your opponent.”
Ohio State swears it is avoiding thinking about anything outside of its next opponent. It doesn’t matter that the teams most figured would face the Buckeyes later in the tournament are no longer alive.
In actuality, the Buckeyes’ path to the Final Four is shaping up nicely. Sure, the Buckeyes must still beat teams that have already won in this tournament, but some of the high-profile programs most expected to be there at the end are no longer standing in Ohio State’s way.
But junior point guard Aaron Craft doesn’t see how that’s worth pondering.
“If anyone is thinking about that, we’re going to lose tomorrow,” he said. “This is a two-game tournament and we have to stay focused on Iowa State and nothing else. You start thinking about outside factors and all of a sudden your season is over.”
It seems as if the Buckeyes have taken notes from the way Matta has always this tournament. But still, there was something that made Matta feel the need to show clips of Lehigh’s triumph over Goliath a year ago.
The head coach now is left hoping that the constant reminders surrounding the Buckeyes will be enough.
“I do believe that our guys have kind of adopted my philosophy,” Matta said. “Going through the Big Ten season I could only tell you the next opponent we were playing after a game. I never knew what was ahead.
“You don’t go to the Final Four last season without knowing it is game-by-game. If we don’t play well tomorrow, it is irrelevant with who is beating who because we aren’t playing anymore. I think these guys are mature enough to understand that.”
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