COLUMBUS — Ohio State won’t have far to travel to play in the NCAA tournament.
At the same time, though, the Buckeyes face a logistical nightmare.
The Buckeyes (27-7) will play 15th-seeded Loyola of Maryland in the second round in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Since the game is just a half-day drive from campus for Ohio State’s mass of scarlet-clad fans, that’s good news.
But having to play on Thursday after a grueling three-day stretch at the Big Ten tournament — including a down-to-the-wire loss to Michigan State in Sunday’s championship game — will provide a stiff test for the young Buckeyes.
“A lot of the kids have got finals starting tomorrow, some at 7:30 a.m.,” coach Thad Matta said on Sunday. “We’re going to be leaving for the tournament site on Tuesday, so it’s going to be a quick turnaround.”
If they win their first game, the Buckeyes would play the winner of West Virginia and Gonzaga. The Mountaineers, coached by Bob Huggins, would provide an intriguing matchup because of their rabid following just down the road from Pittsburgh.
All-American center Jared Sullinger was already contemplating what lies ahead.
“Now we’re going into a tournament where it’s just one and done,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen the next day so you just gotta give it your all.”
Seventh-ranked Ohio State, a regular-season co-champion of the Big Ten, found out its NCAA fate just minutes after falling to eighth-ranked Spartans 68-64 in the conference title game.
Although disappointed after the defeat, the Buckeyes realize that the NCAA tournament provides a bigger prize.
“We’re all competitors, and you never like losing basketball games, especially when it comes down to the wire like that,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “We’re going to go back and look and see that there were various things throughout the game that we could have done better to hopefully change the outcome. By the time we get to our next game, hopefully we are a better basketball team.”
Loyola (24-8) will be making its second appearance in the NCAA tournament after winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title last Monday, beating Fairfield 48-44, to get the conference’s automatic bid.
“This is a great event for Loyola as a school, and we are happy to share it tonight with our fans who have been a great support to us this season,” coach Jimmy Patsos said. “We are very excited.”
In their only previous NCAA appearance, the Greyhounds lost to Arizona in their first game.
Since the Buckeyes lost in the regional semifinals each of the last two years after winning the Big Tournament final, Matta said maybe his team would respond differently than when they were champions.
“The last two years we’ve won this thing,” he said of the conference tournament. “Now maybe we’ll look at a negative as a positive. We’ll take a look at some of the things we’ve done wrong and correct them and then go from there.”
The Buckeyes were a second seed for the second time in the last three years. Two years ago, as a No. 2 seed they lost to Tennessee in the round of 16. A year ago, they were top-seeded and ranked No. 1 when they fell to Kentucky in the regional semifinals.
Craft said he didn’t care where or who the Buckeyes played in the NCAAs.
“It’s about us and not where we have to go,” he said. “It’s about finding a way to make ourselves a better basketball team.”
Football coach Brady Hoke and men’s basketball coach John Beilein of the Buckeyes’ archrival, Michigan, refer to Ohio State simply as “Ohio.” Not only does that rankle Ohio State fans (and coaches and players), but it also has touched a nerve at Ohio University, aka Ohio, which believes the Wolverines believe they are insulting Ohio State.
So when fourth-seeded Michigan drew the actual Ohio, a 13 seed, in its first game on Friday in Nashville, Matta got a big kick out of it.
“It’s the irony of the ages,” he said with a laugh. “Ohio vs. Michigan. Wow.”