LOS ANGELES – Don’t tell Ohio State its opponent in the Elite 8 is a No. 9 seed, the lowest seed to reach the NCAA Tournament’s quarterfinal round since Virginia Commonwealth University did it two years ago as a No. 11.
Don’t tell the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes the Shockers of Wichita State are a mid-major, with a roster full of lowly heralded recruits, none of which likely have a future in the NBA.
And don’t tell OSU a second-consecutive berth in the Final Four is all but assured, or that its 11-game winning streak will most definitely reach 12.
The Buckeyes, following a 73-70 win against No. 6 seed Arizona Thursday, and Wichita State, after a 72-58 defeat of No. 13 La Salle, will meet at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Saturday at 7:05 p.m.
Thad Matta’s squad is the clear favorite heading into its bash against Gregg Marshall’s start-ups with a spot in Atlanta on the line.
But OSU’s players aren’t thinking like that.
“I think we’re not going to overlook anybody at this point. The fact that they’re in the Elite 8 just means that they’re a really great team,” said sophomore guard Shannon Scott. “Even though they don’t come from a great conference, or what their seed is in the tournament, they’re a great team.”
The Shockers knocked off No. 8 seed Pittsburgh in their opening bout before upending No. 1 seed Gonzaga, 76-70, in the tournament’s third round.
At this point, Wichita State likely isn’t going to sneak up on anybody, certainly not the Buckeyes.
“They definitely, like I said, deserve to be here. They’ve played really good basketball, outplayed everyone they’ve played so far,” said junior guard Aaron Craft.
Don’t call Wichita State a “Cinderella,” either. The Shockers have won 25, 29, 27 and now 29 games over the last four seasons.
“They’re a great team. They have a lot of talent,” said sophomore forward Sam Thompson. “They’re playing their best basketball of the season just like we’re playing our best basketball of the season.”
The players that make up Wichita State’s roster might not have been McDonald’s All-Americans or top-100 players coming into college, but to Matta, high recruiting rankings don’t always translate into success on the hardwood.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching two national players of the year, and neither one of them were top 75 high school players out of high school,” Matta said, speaking of former Xavier star David West and former Buckeye All-American Evan Turner.
There’s parity in college basketball right now, according to Matta, meaning the so-called “mid-majors” can at times be just as talented as the apparent “elites.”
“As I go out recruiting every year, I can’t tell the difference between the 20th player and the 120th player in the country,” Matta said. “That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me in terms of your ranking of the recruiting class and all that stuff.”
On the court, the Shockers like to get out and run, and play a style not consistently seen by OSU in Big Ten play.
“They’re extremely deep,” Matta said. “They’ve got guys that can do a lot of things from shooting the ball to driving the ball. They’re sound in terms of-very sound in terms of their execution.”
Wichita State (29-8) is led by two 6-foot-8 forwards, Cleanthony Early, a junior averaging 13.7 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, and Carl Hall, a senior averaging 12.7 points and seven rebounds a contest. Senior guard Malcolm Armstead, though, has been his team’s go-to player so far in the tournament, dropping 48 points through three games.
OSU (29-7) got off to a slow start in its Sweet 16 game against Arizona, falling into a double-digit deficit midway through the opening half. Getting out to a quick start against the Shockers could be paramount for the Buckeyes.
“We really have to come ready to play from the jump. I feel like yesterday we came out kind of slow, timid, but then after coach talked to us a bit, we really got going,” Scott said.
The end of games, however, is where OSU has made its mark in the tournament. A 3-pointer by Craft with 0.5 seconds left against Iowa State sent the Buckeyes into the Sweet 16 and a 3-pointer from Ross against Arizona with two seconds left catapulted OSU into the Elite 8.
It’s surprised some that it wasn’t junior forward Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, hitting those buzzer beaters. OSU’s players haven’t been shocked by it, though.
“We have a lot of confidence in a lot of guys on the team,” Craft said. “I have confidence in a lot of guys to take that shot. So last week it happened to be me, yesterday it happened to be LaQuinton, it could be someone else tomorrow.”
It’s still Thomas out of all the Buckeyes that concerns Marshall the most.
“He’s a bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker,” Marshall said, noting that the statement was a compliment.
And it was Thomas, in opposition from his teammates and coaches, who was the one pointing out what no one Friday seemed to: that OSU is the favorite, and Wichita State the heavy underdog.
“They’ve got nothing to lose,” the junior forward said.
And if OSU is everyone’s pick to advance, is there a pressure to not be the one that lets the low seed continue to dance?
“I don’t think that’s really important to us,” Ross said. “We don’t want to get knocked off by anybody-Syracuse, Louisville, Indiana, Michigan, any of those teams-so we’re taking Wichita State like it’s a Big Ten game or any other game.”
If that’s the case, OSU should fare well tomorrow. The Buckeyes haven’t lost “any” game since Feb. 17 and hold the nation’s longest current winning streak. A win against the Shockers would put OSU in its third Final Four since 2007.