COLUMBUS -- As Ohio State basketball players finished final exams and maybe strolled rather than drove to the Schottenstein Center for practice yesterday, the sun and 70-degree temperature that warmed them only added to the feeling of the new season that awaits them.
Gone are the dark nights in Champaign, Ill., Bloomington, Ind., and Ann Arbor.
"We're going to Pittsburgh," Jared Sullinger said, "and we're looking forward to it."
The NCAA Tournament can do that to a man.
So can escaping the Big Ten after 11 weeks of cage-match basketball.
A year ago, the top-seeded Buckeyes opened the East Regional in another Rust Belt destination, Cleveland, and ran like a new engine in beating Texas-San Antonio and George Mason by a combined 61 points.
This year, as the No.2 seed in the East, their first hurdle is Loyola (Md.), champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, on Thursday night in the Steel City.
The Greyhounds (24-8) don't shoot the ball well but do rebound it on offense and get to the free-throw line. Defensively, they will press and trap and play man-to-man, zone, and variations of the two together.
"We've faced so many different defenses, I think whatever is thrown our way, we'll be able to handle and adjust to," Sullinger said.
A key for Ohio State (27-7) in the tournament, as it has been all season, will be to have the patience to find great shots and then make them. The easier the scoring chance, the better the odds of cashing it. Now that the Buckeyes are free from the tangle of Big Ten bodies, the odds of making easy baskets would seem to be better, at least in the early rounds.
"I hope so," coach Thad Matta said. "When you play 21 games [against Big Ten teams] since December, we've played in some of the highest-level college basketball games of the season, those are things you hope."
With the premium placed by Big Ten coaches on valuing the ball and maximizing possession time, the Buckeyes were not able to create as many easy scoring opportunities off their defense, or otherwise in transition, as during the nonconference season. That could change.
"I think getting outside [the conference], guys not being as familiar with each other as much, makes a big difference," Matta said.
Guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., can be disruptive defenders on the perimeter, and Matta said yesterday that his confidence in freshman Shannon Scott has continued to grow. "It gives us another quick, pressuring, tough-minded guy out there," he said. "I love the progress Shannon has made defensively. He knows going in he's going in to disrupt things.
"Offensively, I think it gives us more of a look with two guys who can get inside the defense and make plays."
With Craft in foul trouble, Scott played crucial minutes against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament championship game on Sunday and acquitted himself well, even converting a pull-up jumper from the foul line when left open, something that hasn't come easy to him this season. That basket, and another for which he was credited because of goaltending less than a minute earlier, were his first field goals since January.
"I was so excited" for him, Matta said. "Hopefully, that gives him confidence."
Matta said he has been more willing to move Craft off the point the past month because of Scott's growth and the fact that Craft has been looking to score more.
"When we can put him off the ball, offensively and defensively, it gives us an advantage," Matta said. "He can disrupt from different places. There were like four of him out there [on Sunday] on the defensive end."