If there is any tension in the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes as they head into a minefield of an NCAA bracket, you’d never know it. And just to offer up a tip: That’s because there is no tension.
These Buckeyes have the perfect blend of calming experience and youthful exuberance. And when it’s time to be not-so-serious – like the loosely scheduled day in between NCAA Tournament games in Cleveland, for example – they have absolutely no problem filling the time with playful banter.
In one corner of the team’s dressing room, freshman Aaron Craft is cracking wise and teasing a teammate. In another, senior Dallas Lauderdale thinks he’s subbing for Oprah and is interviewing anyone who will stop by his “set.” When assistant coach Dave Dickerson braves the area, Lauderdale calls him “my personal barber,” prompting Dickerson to polish the shine coming off of Lauderdale’s shaved-bald head.
At one point, senior Jon Diebler begins to pretend he is drawing up a hockey play on the greaseboard near his locker stall, which is actually used for the Lake Erie Monsters, an American Hockey League team. Then Diebler cuts off the joke.
“Actually I don’t know anything about hockey,” he says with a wry smile.
Moments later, Diebler is picking up the beefy Lauderdale (and it’s a good thing head coach Thad Matta isn’t around since Diebler has a beat up pinky finger on his shooting hand).
The shenanigans continue even when Matta does return and answers a few questions from reporters. In fact, Lauderdale and Diebler head to the chalkboard with many teammates looking on for a fierce battle of … tic-tac-toe?
“Jon, you blew it,” teammate Nikola Kecman shouts after Diebler chooses a box to mark an ‘X.’ This game doesn’t entertain my third grader anymore but the Buckeyes turn it into a party.
“This is the way it’s been all year,” assistant coach Jeff Boals says to me. “This is the best locker room I’ve even seen in all my years around the sport.”
And the fun always seems to include some sort of competition – ping-pong, singing contests, hangman. Yes, hangman.
When you walk around you realize very few of the players are texting or tweeting or even listening to music. There are too many stunts to pull, too many potential laughs at the expense of a teammate.
While Matta speaks to reporters, a long arm pokes in holding a faux microphone. It’s freshman Jared Sullinger extending his wallet.
“Let me guess,” says the coach. “What time is dinner?”
Even after a closed practice on the court of Quicken Loans Arena, the OSU players file out past the media workroom and head to the team bus – loudly.
There’s a very important game against George Mason, the 8-seed in the East, tomorrow (5:15 p.m. Eastern, CBS). But the Buckeyes aren’t wringing their hands, tightening up or wondering if they might be the next victim to be upset in the Big Dance.
It’s simply not their style. Besides when it does end – be it tomorrow or April 4 in Houston – no one could ever accuse this team of not liking each other and maximizing its opportunity.
I hear about it all the time now – the “race” for a No. 1 seed.
This is important, apparently, in the build-up to the NCAA Tournament. This is a big deal. And, if you believe some of the pundits, securing a 1-seed for the Big Dance is vital to success.
Ohio State is the top team in the land according to both major polls and even to some others such as the Sagarin ratings. At 28-2 and 15-2 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are in position to claim an outright conference championship with a win over No. 10 Wisconsin and basically nail down the coveted number uno seed for the NCAA tourney.
In fact, all indications are that OSU is on pace to be considered overall No. 1, a designation that has gained traction in the last five years.
As if the semi-useless ranking system and all the hype in print, on the airwaves an on the Internet were not enough, we now feel the need to have a system in place to even rate the elite teams, thereby labeling somebody as the team to beat during March Madness.
What gets lost in all this is that top seeds in the tournament don’t have a picnic awaiting them. Not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve argued for years that a team may be better off as a 2-seed than a 1, especially when looking at the second round of the tournament when the eye-opening upsets always mount.
Ask Kansas about Northern Iowa.
When you look at college basketball in the last 20 years, you can almost draw a line between the top 30 teams and the rest. After 30, 32, 35 teams there are still some pretty good teams but the flaws are fairly obvious. And none of those teams is ever truly capable of winning it all.
Even N.C. State was a 6-seed in 1983. The 1985 Villanova Wildcats, the lowest seed ever to win it all, was an 8.
Yes, 1-seeds do well. But we still haven’t have a year where all four make the Final Four. The road is too perilous for that – and the committee loves to load up one bracket with traditional powers every year to guarantee good, dramatic television all the way through.
And that leads to how point relates to Ohio State. I was looking at the most recent bracketology by ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi when it hit me between the eyes.
Lunardi had OSU, as the overall No. 1 seed, playing the first two rounds in Cleveland and competing in the Newark (N.J.) regional. That seems very logical as does Lunardi’s entire bracket. After all, this guy’s year-round job is to weigh all potential input and factors and come up with an updated projected NCAA Tournament bracket every week of the season.
Now, granted, Lunardi’s findings for the last installment in February have ZERO chance of being 100 percent accurate. There’s no way anyone could even nail all the 1 through 8s correctly and the tournament committee has been known to throw curveballs even to scholars like Lunardi.
However, when looking at his scenario, Ohio State had a play-in winner in Round 1 and then, following the seeding, would have faced this potential draw in pursuit of the national championship: UCLA, UConn, Duke, Pittsburgh, Kansas. Does that sound easy?
That’s right, the defending national champion Blue Devils were listed as the 2-seed in the East, the same region that would house the so-called team to beat.
And the Dookies have Nolan Smith with which to contend. UConn has a Player of the Year candidate, too, in Kemba Walker. UCLA has outstanding young talent and has been coming on of late. Pittsburgh, Duke and Kansas have all been in the top five virtually all season.
Again, it’s not an actual road map but an example of just how hard it is to plow through the tournament round after round, even for the so-called overall No. 1 seed.
Yes, being a 1-seed gives you a nice cushy first-round game and in theory also allows you to play semi-close to your campus. After that, though, the objective is pretty simple: You better bring it or start packing for the trip home.
Thad Matta was understandably edgy yesterday. One day after his Buckeyes played their worst game of the season, blew a chance to climb back to No. 1 in the polls and lost by 13 at Purdue, he had a full day to explain it all to the media.
Monday is the day coaches participate in the Big Ten teleconference. And in the evening Matta is involved with his call-in show – although we suggest the much more analytical and entertaining “Bucksline” on 610 WTVN from 6-7 (shameless plug).
And with the Buckeyes facing a quick turnaround and visit by Illinois on Tuesday (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN), Matta also had to squeeze in an interview session with local reporters before the team’s lone practice for the Illini.
Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly thrilling for the seventh-year OSU head coach.
Early in the session he joked about the negative nature of the questions. Later, he joked again but also sounded irked when he said, “By the tone of this, I thought we lost a bowl game today.”
And yet, because the media’s job is to ask the queries on the mind of the public, the pointed questions about defensive mistakes, offensive shortcomings, substitution concerns and the like kept coming, no doubt leaving Matta to wonder when his day was going to end.
The 76-63 loss at Purdue on Sunday is now coupled with the 71-67 setback at Wisconsin the weekend prior, and no matter how unfair it is to wring ones hands about road losses to top 10 teams and a 25-2 overall record, the reality is the Buckeyes have lost two of their last three games. Even though they are still a game ahead of Purdue and in first place in the Big Ten standings, they need a pick-me-up.
And that’s where the OSU fans come in.
After the Buckeyes barely survived a scare at Michigan and returned home for a Saturday affair with Penn State, the fans filled Value City Arena and might have been the difference in a 69-66 win over the upstart Nittany Lions. PSU had a chance to send the game into overtime but Talor Battle’s three-point have at the buzzer was woefully short as the Lions never really were able to get into a comfortable offensive set amid all the noise and facing a determined OSU defense.
The crowd of 18,809 marked the first sellout since the Purdue game on Feb. 17, 2010 and was much needed as the Buckeyes struggled in the second half while trying to cling to a 10-point second-half lead.
“Today when I walked out I was blown away,” Matta said after that game. “You could tell everyone was into the game and I know that our players greatly appreciate it.”
The fans in attendance probably were there for a bandwagon reason since a win basically assured the Buckeyes would ascend to the top of the polls. It turned out their presence was important.
Ohio State played before sellout crowds against Michigan on Feb. 3 (a 62-53 win) and Michigan State on Feb. 15 (a 71-61 win) to improve to 50-13 when VCA is jam-packed. That is expected to be the case when OSU faces Bruce Weber's Illini.
The arena was electric for most of those games, even some notable losses like the one-point squeaker with Kansas in the mid-Jim-O’Brien era and the eight-point loss to Texas Tech and Bob Knight in January 2004.
And with all the emphasis on moving students behind the benches, noise pumped into the building, improved connections to program tradition and use of the multimillion-dollar scoreboard, Matta and the Buckeyes have raved about what they deem to be an improved atmosphere this season.
And sellout or not, the Buckeyes still will be back in their home environs where they are a staggering 116-10 with Matta patrolling the sidelines. That means the odds are very much in Ohio State's favor and most of the what's-wrong questions could begin to dissipate.
The Ohio State men’s basketball team just survived a 58-57 scare at Northwestern on Saturday, but as the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten team the Buckeyes are a unanimous No. 1 in both major polls.
Ohio State (22-0) retained all 31 first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and also garnered all 65 first-place votes in The Associated Press poll.
The Buckeyes next face rival Michigan Thursday evening (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) at the Schottenstein Center. Head coach Thad Matta said on his radio call-in show Monday night that he expects to see a very enthused crowd for that game. At last check, more than 17,000 seats were sold and the game was a near-sellout.
The remainder of the top five after OSU is the same in both polls: Kansas (20-1) at No. 2, Texas (18-3) at No. 3, Pittsburgh (20-2) at No. 4 and Duke (19-2) at No. 5. The preseason No. 1, Duke was just blasted in a 15-point loss at St. John’s over the weekend.
In fact, amazingly, OSU was one of just three schools in last week’s AP top 10 to survive the week without a loss. The other two are Kansas and Texas. The Buckeyes have now been No. 1 in both polls for three straight weeks.
Rounding out the top 10 in the AP poll are Connecticut, San Diego State, BYU, Notre Dame and Kentucky.
Four newcomers join the rankings — Arizona, Utah State, North Carolina and West Virginia. They replace Illinois, Florida State, Florida and Michigan State.
Syracuse, which has lost four straight games after an 18-0 start, is at No. 17 in both polls.
Apparently the Tat Pack does know how to make good on a promise.
Five Ohio State juniors who are facing five-game suspensions at the start of the 2011 season – quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Daniel “Boom” Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, left tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas – decided not to avoid the penalty and leave school early even though there was heavy speculation some of them would.
OSU head coach Jim Tressel informed the media before the team’s Sugar Bowl appearance that he had pledges from all five that they would return and he was confident they would comply.
The five and backup linebacker Jordan Whiting, who was suspended for one game next season, admitted to selling items including Big Ten championship rings and Gold Pants pendants to a local business owner in exchange for money and tattoos. The NCAA disclosed the improprieties and punishment the week of Christmas but declared the players eligible for the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl.
Pryor, Herron, Posey and Adams all started the BCS bowl game as usual and contributed to a 31-26 win over Arkansas in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Thomas, who is not a starter, secured the victory with a late interception.
Also opting to stay put was junior offensive lineman Michael Brewster despite being at the top of NFL prospect lists for centers. Brewster announced early last week he would return for his senior season and said he sensed that his classmates would do the same.
In fact, when the NFL released the list of early entrants on Wednesday and a record 56 names were on it, none of them were Buckeyes. It marked the first time Tressel had kept all his underclassmen on campus since 2003.
A few Big Ten combatants of note are leaving early including Indiana wide receiver Tandon Doss, Iowa safety Tyler Sash and the highly effective Wisconsin duo of running back John Clay and defensive end J.J. Watt. Illinois will lose three talented juniors – running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson.
The list is headlined by Heisman Trophy-winning QB Cam Newton of Auburn and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram, a running back from Alabama, as well as several other big-name players such as Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers, UConn RB Jordan Todman, Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert, Clemson DE Da’Quan Bowers and Kentucky WR Randall Cobb.
For a complete listing of all 56 players, click here.
After making the trip up north to Ann Arbor yesterday and taking in Ohio State’s 68-64 win over Michigan at Crisler Arena, there are some observations that became obvious, like:
-- The fact that Ohio State’s 17-0 start is now the best for a Buckeye hoop team since 19900-91 and the days of Jimmy Jackson, who happened to be sitting courtside as an analyst for Big Ten Network. Duke lost at Florida State (OSU won there 58-44 on Nov. 30) later in the evening, meaning the Buckeyes likely would move to the top of both major polls with a win at home over Penn State on Saturday.
-- Maize and Blue fans are pretty pumped about the hiring of Brady Hoke, who addressed the media earlier in the day and received a huge ovation when he took his seat courtside, just a few pegs down from Jackson. Hoke has just a 47-50 record as a head coach but rectified the programs at Ball State and San Diego State and has ties to Michigan as a member of the staff that guided the program to the 1997 national championship. He gets what Michigan football, the Big Ten and the Ohio State rivalry are all about – things Rich Rodriguez maybe never did.
-- The Buckeyes got clutch free throws from William Buford and Aaron Craft in the final minute to hold on after Jared Sullinger had fouled out. Also, Buford was hot early and finished with game high totals of 19 points and nine rebounds. It was a made-to-order performance by the junior from Toledo one game after disrupting a game-tying three-point attempt in the final seconds of Sunday’s 67-64 win over Minnesota.
-- Michigan is developing nicely. Coach John Beilein has a young team and a much different roster than the one we saw in March when OSU eliminated the Wolverines from the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament on a heave by Evan Turner. Gone are the likes of talented forward DeShawn Sims and guard Manny Harris, now a Cleveland Cavalier, but this UM team shows good aptitude for the game and consistent effort – two areas that have been sporadic in the Beilein era.
-- The Buckeyes overcame good shooting (24 of 46 on field goals, 11 of 24 from three) by the Wolverines with good shooting of their own (22 of 42, 7 of 14). However, they continue to be mediocre at the free-throw stripe (17 of 25, 68.0 percent). That total had much to do with David Lighty faring just 6 of 13.
After a very late night and wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I watched the BTN replay of the game and came up with several more observations. They follow:
-- The crowd groaned on every foul call and it did seem like there were a few questionable whistles, but in watching the broadcast it appeared that the officiating crew of Mike Kitts, Tom O’Neill and Mike Eades was spot-on. The block-charges were correct and the foul calls on shots were accurate as well. The crew even watched a replay of the Sullinger incident when he knocked the ball away from UM’s Darius Morris and determined there was no elbow thrown or anything that warranted a technical foul or ejection. The only really obvious missed call I noticed was that Morris took three full steps across the lane going into a shot before grabbing a rebound and scoring late in the game. Of course, I could see that from my perch in the arena.
-- Morris has some growing up to do. He had excellent numbers with 18 points, five rebounds and eight assists, but much of that production came after OSU opened up a 53-41 lead. Plus, he forced several plays with Craft guarding him and committed five turnovers. But mostly he appeared intent on instigating bad blood with his exchange with Sullinger and even talking trash to Lighty after the last field goal of the game. Huh? If Morris thinks the rivalry is about running your mouth, someone needs to educate the young man.
-- Zack Novak is becoming a ballplayer. UM’s feisty forward used to engage in the same kind of theatrics as Morris did last night but he played good, hard basketball and was effective throughout. He hit 4 of 5 threes, grabbed a couple steals and used his trademark hardnose defense to help harass Sullinger in the paint. In fact, he fouled the big fella out with 1:19 to play by smartly drawing a charge.
-- Speaking of Sullinger, he will have to mark this game as a learning experience. He was off balance and too forceful at times trying to fight through the extra attention. Plus, he got sloppy defensively. In fact, I hadn’t even realized until watching the replay that all five of his fouls occurred in the second half. Other teams are going to try the same tactics and take away Sullinger’s vision on the double teams. He’s going to have to feel it sooner and react with better control. Here’s betting he will.
-- Jon Diebler didn’t do much statistically – nine points, one rebound and one assist in 38 minutes – but played a very solid game. My colleague Tony White tends to rip Diebler for his lack of production but in watching the game again he was solid on both ends of the floor and swished a pair of threes after dislocating his elbow in the first half. Granted, it was his left elbow, but Diebler continued to play the right way and only take shots that were there. There are reasons why Thad Matta likes him out on the floor.
-- Craft is becoming more important to this team by the day. Matta opted to go small and inserted the freshman early on and also started him in the second half in place of big man Dallas Lauderdale. Craft just logged 32 minutes against Michigan and is going to draw assignments like Talor Battle and Kalin Lucas in the very near future. He will continue to try to mesh into the offense by distributing the ball, shooting when left alone and taking important trips to the free-throw line. Sullinger has a lock on the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, but Craft also has to be considered one of the newcomers in the league who is vital to his team.
(For more of Jeff's Ohio State coverage, check out his website, SportsRappUp.com)