15 p.m. in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament.
DAYTON, Ohio – If Thursday’s practice is any indication, the Ohio State men’s basketball team isn’t feeling the pressure of the NCAA Tournament just yet.
The West Region’s No. 2 seed spilled onto the University of Dayton Arena floor just before 4:25 p.m. Thursday for a 40-minute practice session in front of a few hundred Buckeye fans.
Before the practice clock started to run, OSU players and coaches scattered around the hardwood. Thad Matta spoke to a smiling threesome of Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Shannon Scott, joking with the sophomores while pointing out aspects of the 13,435-seat facility. Junior forward Deshaun Thomas and junior guard Aaron Craft grinned and waved to scarlet and gray-clad faithful yelling for their attention.
OSU’s student-athletes signed autographs on their way off the floor, following less than an hour of work highlighted by an impromptu dunk-off between Thompson and junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.
The Buckeyes were noticeably comfortable in anticipation of their contest against No. 15 seed Iona Friday at 7:15 p.m. With their NCAA Tournament venue being only roughly an hour drive from Columbus, it’s easy to see why that’s the case.
“We had a great practice this morning in Columbus, and an hour and 15-minute ride over here. I like it from that standpoint,” Matta said. “It keeps us in the routine we’ve been in.”
“This is amazing,” Craft said. “Buckeye Nation always travels really well, and being only an hour away, it can only help. We’re just really excited to see what kind of crowd we can get out here.”
Those in attendance Friday evening will be watching an OSU team that has won eight straight games capped by a Big Ten Tournament championship in Chicago last weekend.
“Coach did a great job getting ourselves prepared for March,” Thomas said.
But the Buckeyes aren’t ready to brag about any of their accomplishments yet.
“It’s not time to celebrate that yet. It’s not time to change who we are as a basketball team, to try to be somebody that we’re not,” Matta said.
Don’t expect the Gaels to be flustered by any of OSU’s winning history, either.
Led by senior guard Lamont “Momo” Jones, who averages 23 points per contest, Iona won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. Only six No. 15 seeds have ever beaten a No. 2, but Iona expects nothing short of a victory.
“I’m very confident. I think we can win the game, and if we win the game, it’s not going to be a shocker,” Jones said.
Jones said he and his teammates respect OSU, but the sharpshooter said he isn’t likely to be fazed by anything the Buckeyes present. Specifically, Jones said he won’t feel pressured by OSU’s defensive-minded guard duo of Craft and Scott.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem with it,” Jones said, noting that he goes against in-your-face defenders every day in practice.
OSU players are aware of the outpouring of confidence from their opponent.
“We definitely listen. We’re not going to respond to any of that, but we know what they’re saying,” Thompson said.
Smith went as far to say that Jones’ comments might have made the Buckeyes more focused for the contest.
“If we weren’t ready to play, they just made us ready to play. They gave us all the ammunition (we) needed,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t conscious of the Gaels’ capability to play well.
“They’ve got great scorers. They’re very active on defense,” Thomas said. “So what we need to do is just run our offense with pace and hit the open shots and hit the open man and just play hard.”
Iona was the second-highest scoring team in the country during the regular season at 80.7 points per game. Along with Jones, junior guard Sean Armand propels the Gaels, dropping 16.6 points a contest.
The Buckeyes will have their hands full with Iona’s shooters, who started practice Thursday with a 3-point contest.
But Craft thinks his team has its best basketball in front of it.
“The worst thing we can do is get complacent. Coach is doing a great job staying honest and having our minds ready to go, and that’s what it’s about,” he said. “This is when the fun starts happening. Hopefully we can extend it.”
If OSU gets past Iona, the Buckeyes will take on the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Notre Dame and No. 10 seed Iowa State Sunday.