Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
For the first time since the preseason, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has a target on its back not many other squads currently claim.
The Buckeyes started the year ranked No. 4 in the country but fell from the top rung of the college basketball world after non-conference losses to Duke and Kansas. Following a blowout loss at Wisconsin in mid-February, OSU dropped out of the national limelight all together.
OSU has since rebounded; winning 10 straight contests highlighted by a Big Ten Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament wins against Iona and Iowa State.
During their recent stretch, though, the Buckeyes were never truly the hunted – the team everyone else was eyeing and going after. In Chicago at the conference tournament, OSU was a secondary thought to No. 1 seed and regular season champion Indiana. In the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes were seeded below Gonzaga in the West Region and considered the worst of all the No. 2 seeds by the NCAA’s S-curve.
That’s all changed heading into this weekend, with Thad Matta’s squad now being the clear favorite in the West Region.
OSU is the highest remaining seed in its region. Gonzaga, No. 3 seed New Mexico, No. 4 seed Kansas State and No. 5 seed Wisconsin have all fallen in the West. The Buckeyes will play No. 6 seed Arizona Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and, if victorious, will take on either No. 9 seed Wichita State or No. 13 seed La Salle Saturday in the Elite Eight.
For OSU, anything less than a trip to the Final Four at this point will be construed as a disappointment by many.
Reporter Andy Glockner said in a Monday SI.com article that OSU is “the most polished and accomplished team left,” in its region.
In a mock re-seeding of the 16 teams remaining in the field, Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com placed the Buckeyes fourth, only behind Louisville (Midwest Region No. 1 seed), Michigan (South Region No. 4 seed), and Florida (South Region No. 3 seed).
Matta’s Buckeye squads have fared well in previous NCAA Tournaments as the higher seed.
Since 2007, OSU is 14-3 in the NCAA Tournament against teams seeded lower than it, with the three losses coming to No. 9 seed Siena in 2009, No. 6 seed Tennessee in 2010 and No. 4 seed Kentucky in 2011.
Much of that can be attributed to Matta having his team playing its best basketball at the most important time of the season.
It’s no different this year.
“Coach does a great job preparing us for March,” said junior forward Deshaun Thomas.
OSU is finally playing like the team many thought it could be when the season began with the Buckeyes ranked among the country’s elite.
Junior guard Aaron Craft and sophomore forward Sam Thompson have proven to be competent secondary scoring options to Thomas. Sophomore guard Shannon Scott and sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross have provided major sparks off the bench in recent games. Redshirt senior forward Evan Ravenel and sophomore center Amir Williams, while making limited impacts offensively, have rebounded well and played stingy defense in the lane.
It’s every team’s goal to be playing as well as possible as the season comes to an end; the Buckeyes are actually doing it. The Buckeyes will find out Thursday whether that can continue against an Arizona team that struggled with consistency down the stretch. The Wildcats won their first 14 games of the season, but lost three of their final five games heading into the NCAA Tournament and finished tied for second in the PAC-12. Arizona is led by its point guard Mark Lyons, who transferred from Xavier after last season. The Wildcat senior who averages 15.4 points per game will face off against the defensive minded duo of Craft and Scott. On the inside, Arizona features forward Solomon Hill. The senior averages 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, and will be playing in his hometown.
OSU players, however, aren’t really paying attention to anything going outside “The O,” a term used by the Buckeyes to describe their inner circle in which nothing is supposed to distract them from the goal ahead.
“We just focus on us and ourselves, what we got in our circle and on our team,” Thomas said. “We don’t let (any) distractions come in our circle. We know once that happens, bad things can happen.”
There are three teams standing in the way of OSU and a return to the Final Four, and while none of them are considered elite, the Buckeyes aren’t taking any of them lightly.
“The teams that are left, they’re there for a reason, and they’re not going to be slouches,” said Craft, whose game winning 3-pointer vaulted OSU past the Cyclones Sunday.
OSU and Arizona are set to tip off at 7:47 p.m. Thursday at the Staples Center in LA.