No matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament, this season has been a success for Ohio State – the regular season champions of the Big Ten.
But don’t tell that to the players and coaches. They are determined to make a deep run in the field of 65.
The action begins for OSU on Friday when the second-seeded Buckeyes (25-5) take on 15th-seeded Davidson (20-10) at the University of Dayton Arena (12:15; CBS).
Ohio State and Davidson also met in the first round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament. The fourth-seeded Buckeyes escaped with a 69-64 win over the 13th-seeded Wildcats.
Technically, that game never took place as OSU’s tournament records from 1999-2002 have been erased from the books due to violations committed during the tenure of former head coach Jim O’Brien.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta took Xavier to the round of eight in 2004, so he knows what it takes to be successful in the tournament.
“I think staying with what you do,” Matta said. “Painting a picture for the guys that it’s lose, pack your stuff. Really, telling the guys that have faith in everything you’ve done for the past five or six months is going to pay off for you. Knowing that every game is going to be a battle and I think that’s what the Big Ten has done a great job of preparing us for. We’ve seen every situation you can see. Even last weekend (at the Big Ten Tournament) we had every scenario. You have to have confidence when you go into these games.”
The Buckeyes had to play the Big Ten Tournament without backup center Matt Terwilliger. The 6-8 sophomore had appendicitis and underwent surgery on March 8.
Matta was asked if Terwilliger will be available this weekend.
“I hope so,” he said. “He worked out yesterday. But one thing I’m not going to do is jeopardize his health for the game of basketball. But he’s slowly getting back. He’s doing some cardio stuff, he’s shooting and I don’t know what his status will be (Wednesday) at practice. Hopefully we can use him for a few minutes here and there.”
One theory would be to take a calculated risk and hold Terwilliger out of the Davidson game, hoping the Buckeyes advance to the second round to play the winner of seventh-seeded Georgetown and 10th-seeded Northern Iowa.
But if OSU senior center Terence Dials gets in foul trouble, Matta could choose to play Terwilliger against Davidson.
“Yeah, if needed. Which I’m sure we will,” Matta said. “But like I said, it will probably be a game-time decision to see how he’s coming along. (Tuesday) he was moving well, but I don’t want him to do too much. I told him he needs to shoot me straight with how he feels because I don’t want to play an injured player.”
Davidson won the Southern Conference Tournament championship. The Wildcats are making their eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament, and third under head coach Bob McKillop.
Davidson is a veteran squad. It is led by senior forward Brendan Winters (17.1 ppg), senior forward Ian Johnson (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and senior guard Jason Morton (10.9 ppg). The 6-9 Johnson is the tallest player on the team, but carries just 225 pounds on his thin frame.
“Very good basketball team,” Matta said of Davidson. “A lot of seniors; lot of experience. A team that offensively uses a lot of spacing. They do a good job of taking care of the basketball and moving the basketball. Really understand how to play. They screen well; they shoot well. They’re also a team that likes to get out and go in transition. They average 78 points a game. And defensively they’re very sound. They play defense a lot like a Wisconsin. Really, it’s a great challenge for us.”
Davidson played a tough non-conference schedule. The Wildcats lost at Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse (90-80), and defeated St. Joseph’s (100-94).
If OSU wins, it will have a quick turnaround. The Buckeyes would play on Sunday at UD Arena. Therefore, the Buckeyes have already scouted Georgetown and Northern Iowa.
“(Our assistant coaches) got those teams scouted,” Matta said. “I’ve only seen a little bit of them. My focus has been more on Davidson and us, more than Georgetown and Northern Iowa.”
Ohio State has struggled making three-point shots over the last few weeks. The Buckeyes shot over 40 percent as a team for much of the season, but have since dropped to 37.1 percent overall.
“Well, I think you continue to shoot and at this stage of the season you hope you make them,” the always-positive Matta said. “That was the biggest thing at Xavier a couple years ago when we made a nice run, we were shooting the ball well. There’s not a lot that we can do at this point. You just want guys to have the confidence and feel good that they can step up and make the shot.”
Ohio State is also a veteran team. Not many college basketball squads have three fifth year seniors (Dials, J.J. Sullinger, Matt Sylvester).
“Well, I think it’s very important,” Matta said. “Experience is something that you can’t put a price on. Terence is the only guy that’s played in the NCAA Tournament. But when you go through the Big Ten season for four years like these guys have – and James the SEC – you hope that they’ve got a certain calm about them when different situations arise.”
No question playing in Dayton will be a huge advantage for Ohio State. There are a lot of Buckeye fans that live in Dayton, and plenty more will be flooding the Gem City from all around the state.
“I think it’s a tremendous situation for us and where we are with this program and the rebuilding of Ohio State basketball to play an NCAA Tournament game in our own state,” Matta said. “To continue to generate the interest and the enthusiasm, I love it. Playing here, as opposed to Jacksonville, or Salt Lake City, or San Diego. I love the fact that we’re in Dayton. Some of our guys have played in there and I’ve coached in there. There’s a great restaurant there that I’m going to take the guys to (Dominic’s). We should be good.”
The Players’ View
Ohio State point guard Jamar Butler says OSU cannot look past its first round game. The Buckeyes know that Davidson is a formidable opponent.
“They’re a tough team,” Butler said. “We’re pretty similar. They like to shoot threes; we like to shoot threes. They have a lot of good players and they’ve played some good teams this year in their non-conference schedule. We’re going to have to play good. They can play. They wouldn’t be in this tournament if they couldn’t play.”
Butler is OSU’s best three-point shooter at 42.2 percent. He is not concerned about OSU’s recent woes from long range.
“We’ve just got to keep shooting,” he said. “If we want them to start falling again, we have to keep shooting them. We got some shots up (Tuesday) and everybody’s shot was looking good. Hopefully we’ll knock them down.”
Butlere is pleased that OSU is playing so close to home.
“Being in Ohio, I think that gives us a slight advantage,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of (OSU) people there and the atmosphere is going to be great. Our fans, they get us going sometimes.”
Butler says OSU’s practices haven’t been any more intense this week. It’s tournament time, but the Buckeyes are taking the same approach that made them so successful this year.
“I’d say it’s business as usual,” Butler said. “I don’t feel any different and I don’t think any of us feel any different. We’re just preparing for another team and trying to get a win.”
Butler thinks OSU might be on the verge of a deep tournament run.
“I think there’s no limit to what this team can do,” he said. “I think we can make a pretty good run in this tournament. But anybody can beat anybody on any given night.”
Could OSU advance all the way to the Final Four?
“Oh yeah, that’s what we want to do,” Butler said. “That’s our goal. We’re not just happy to be in this tournament. We want to make a run and get to the Final Four.”
And the fact that Matta was so close two years ago just gives the players that much more confidence.
“Oh yeah, of course,” Butler said. “Knowing that Coach Matta has been in this situation before… he loves this team and he’s coaching this team and I think we can do it.”
* Junior guard Ron Lewis also believes the Buckeyes are going to keep their dancing shoes on for a few weeks. He thinks winning four games is a strong possibility.
“We’re going in with a whole lot of confidence,” Lewis said. “We have confidence in our team and we believe in each other and the coaching staff.”
Lewis will have much of his family in attendance at the game.
“It’s a little advantage,” he said. “Close to home and we’re going to have a home crowd there. It’s really like a home game.
“We feed a lot off the crowd. It gives us an extra boost of confidence. You always need a crowd behind you and our fans have been there since the beginning of the season. And that has given us a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
Lewis was asked if Davidson is a scary game for OSU.
“They’re a great team. They’re not a mid-major team,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a scary game because we’re confident that we can get the job done.”
* The player everyone wants to know about is Terwilliger. Like Matta said, it will be a game-time decision. But Terwilliger definitely wants to play.
“It’s just one of those deals that you have to feel out,” Terwilliger said. “But I’m feeling better every day. I did some shooting (Tuesday) and I’ve been working out with the team a little bit. I’m getting closer.
“I feel a lot better. I’m getting better every day. Not quite 100 percent. I’d say I’m about 60 or 70 percent right now. But I can lift and I can run, so I feel like I’m getting my stamina back a little bit.”
Terwilliger didn’t know he was so loved by Buckeye fans. His status was a hot topic on message boards this week.
“I didn’t. But it feels good,” Terwilliger said. “I just want to get back out there. I will be relieved.”
Terwilliger was asked if he thinks he will play against Davidson.
“I’m really not sure,” he said. “I met with the doctor and he said, ‘There’s no exact time when you can go back.’ It’s just one of those things that we have to feel out. I don’t want to jump in too early and risk a real serious injury.”
Terwilliger first noticed something was wrong on March 5, the day OSU clinched the outright Big Ten championship with a 76-57 win over Purdue.
“Yeah, a lot of pain and cramping in my stomach,” he said. “It was noticeable. It wasn’t real bad. I didn’t think it was anything like appendicitis.”
Terwilliger – who hails from the Dayton suburb of Troy – played several games at UD Arena in high school.
“I played every year at UD,” he said. “First and second round of the tournament every year. Unfortunately, that’s as far as I ever made it. But that’s where we played every year for four years.
“I think it’s going to be wild. The teams that are going to be there, we have us, North Carolina and Michigan State are all going to be there. And Dayton loves basketball. There’s always crowds there at UD Arena.
“We love the fact we’re so close to home, just because we know there’s going to be a big Buckeye crowd there.”