NEW YORK - Ohio State had just lost three straight games in mid-January when Thad Matta got on the phone with Florida coach Billy Donovan, looking for some insight into how to handle a young team or some encouraging words from a close colleague.
So much for that.
"He started laughing and said, 'You think you've got problems?'•" Matta
All of those freshmen and sophomores who replaced the star-studded cast of last year's national title game have grown up, though, and Florida and Ohio State are back in the final four - though nobody's mistaking the NIT for the NCAA tournament.
If the two-time defending national champion Gators can beat Massachusetts and the Buckeyes get past Mississippi in the NIT semifinals tonight, they'll play a rematch of last year's title game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
"If you take the amount of players in the national championship last year that are now in NBA uniforms ... I'm not surprised where we're at," said Donovan, putting the postseason in perspective. "This is a path for our program and our team right now that we've got to go through."
It's not a path either team expected to take.
The youthful Gators started 18-3 and had everybody momentarily forgetting first-round picks Al Horford, Corey Brewer, and Joakim Noah, and second-round selections Taurean Green and Chris Richard. And it's not what the Buckeyes, without departed draft picks Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook, were expecting when they beat Michigan State in their regular-season finale.
But Florida wilted down the stretch, and Ohio State fell to the Spartans in the Big Ten tournament, and for the first time since 1980, the two finalists from the previous year were left out of the NCAA field.
"It's not the national championship game, but it's still a tournament," said Buckeyes guard Jamar Butler, who scored 13 points when Ohio State beat Florida in December. "We had the mind-set coming in that we wanted to win this."
Ohio State (22-13) hasn't been tested in the NIT, coasting past UNC-Asheville, California, and Dayton to reach New York.
The Gators (24-11), the first defending champions to miss the tournament since 1989, also have breezed through the bracket. Easy home wins over San Diego State and Creighton set up a quarterfinal at Arizona State, where Florida shot a season-high 60.5 percent from the floor in toppling the top-seeded Sun Devils.
Massachusetts (24-10) was among the last teams left hanging on Selection Sunday, but it quickly regrouped to beat Stephen F. Austin in the NIT's opening round. The Minutemen then showed some perseverance behind coach Travis Ford, rallying from 12 down with 8 1/2 minutes left to beat Akron and 22 down with 14:34 left to beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
One of the rising stars in coaching, Ford has returned Massachusetts to basketball's main stage by instilling similar values as Donovan did at Florida - fitting, of course, because Donovan was an assistant at Kentucky when Ford was leading the Wildcats to the 1993 Final Four.
"He's somebody who, if I had a bad day or coach [Rick] Pitino got on me, I could go talk to," Ford said of his relationship with Donovan. "Someone I respect, admire, look up to, all those things."
Ole Miss (24-10) reached the NIT semifinals by beating UC-Santa Barbara and fending off Nebraska, then going on the road to upset Virginia Tech.
"This is a tremendous experience for our kids," Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said. "I played in this event in 1989 and still have very fond memories of playing in the Garden and the experience it was, and I'm hopeful our guys are creating the same lasting memories."
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