Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
Though March is filled with uncertainty in college basketball, one thing is guaranteed for the Ohio State men’s basketball team: Sunday will be its last game of the season in its home state.
After defeating Texas-San Antonio, 75-46, on Friday, OSU will play George Mason (27-6) at 5 p.m. Sunday in Cleveland.
The Buckeyes are not taking the Colonial Athletic Association regular season champions lightly.
“They’re no cupcake,” OSU fifth-year senior forward David Lighty said. “Like I’ve been saying, every team is in the tournament for a reason.”
The Patriots earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid on the strength of their 16-2 conference record. GMU was 2-3 against other tournament teams during the regular season.
The Patriots start three players who average double figures in scoring a game, and a fourth who averages 9.9. Four of GMU’s starters were on the team during its 2008 tournament appearance, the last time it participated in March Madness.
Experienced or not, the Buckeyes know to expect an increase in level of competition.
“Well, I think our guys, as we always talk about, every step you take in the NCAA Tournament forward, you’re going to play a better basketball team,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “And our guys obviously understand that and know that.”
Despite the 2008 appearance, most connect the Patriots with coach Jim Larranaga’s historic run to the 2006 Final Four. That was the first time in 27 years that a mid-major made a run that deep in the tournament.
“(They are) a real good team,” Lighty said. “When you hear ‘George Mason,’ you hear about a team going to the Final Four and all the things they accomplished.”
The team’s 61-57 victory against Villanova on Friday in its first game of the 2011 tournament was its first March Madness victory since 2006. The Patriots were lifted over the Wildcats with an 18-point performance by sophomore forward Luke Hancock.
OSU received its own 18-point performance from junior guard William Buford in its second-round victory against UTSA.
The Roadrunners did their best to slow the tempo of the game against the Buckeyes. With GMU averaging 73 points a game this season, OSU expects a different approach from the Patriots.
“As I told them,” Matta said, “I think Sunday will be a completely different style of game.”
Considering the Roadrunners deviated from their normal game plan by playing as slow as they did Friday, the Buckeyes will have to be able to adjust to whatever GMU throws at them.
“I think that as you get into these games, and it will happen on Sunday, you’ve got to look and say, ‘OK, defensively, what are they trying to take away; what are they trying to do?'” Matta said, “and we adjust accordingly.”
During its 29-point rout of UTSA, the team was able to keep its defensive focus and force the Roadrunners into 25.8 percent shooting in the second half. The team used that effort to stay sharp for the GMU contest.
“Once we got that lead, they started running their regular offense,” OSU freshman point guard Aaron Craft said. “That allowed us to get in a flow and work on our defense for Sunday.”
The Buckeyes also were able to use a decidedly OSU crowd to fuel their performance Friday. Playing at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland again Sunday, the team expects more of the same.
“It was awesome today. I think if it’s possible to get the amount of fans, Ohio State fans again for the next game, that will be great. It helped us out a lot and felt like a home game,” senior guard Jon Diebler said. “We’ve been saying all year we’ve got the best fans in the country.”
Regardless of the OSU supporters, the Buckeyes know they will need to stay focused in their last game in Ohio.
“You can’t look at any team and say, ‘This is going to be a blowout,'” Lighty said. “You have to come ready to play for 40 minutes.”