CHICAGO — Aaron Craft cheered Sunday night as the Ohio State basketball team learned it would open the NCAA tournament a short drive from campus.
"Playing in Dayton, you can’t have anything better," he said. "Buckeye Nation will travel well."
Deshaun Thomas was less near-sighted, his mind already drifting south. All the way to the Final Four.
"It will be Atlanta," the Buckeyes forward said with a smile. "It would be fun, great weather, I’ve got family down there."
For the newly minted Big Ten tournament champions, the dream no longer seemed all that distant. Not after the tournament selection show ended with the Buckeyes as one of the trendiest picks to make a return Final Four trip.
OSU (26-7) earned a No. 2 seed and will open Friday against Iona (20-13) in the West Region, where the biggest threat is top-seeded Gonzaga — widely perceived as the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds.
Michigan will stay close to home, too, though with a more difficult path in the South Region.
UM (26-7) opens Thursday at The Palace of Auburn Hills against South Dakota State (25-9). Top-three seeds Kansas, Georgetown, and Florida all stand in the path of a trip to the national semifinals.
The rival programs enter the tournament careening in wildly different directions. While an eight-game winning streak shoved the Buckeyes near the top of the 68-team field, few without maize-tinted glasses will be picking Michigan for a deep March run.
After opening the season 20-1 and rising atop the polls for the first time in two decades, Michigan did about everything it could to cast doubt on a once-certain tournament berth just up the road at the Pistons’ home arena. UM fell on the wrong side of the stunner of the Big Ten season — a loss at lowly Penn State — and staggered to a 6-6 finish.
If the Wolverines advance past South Dakota State, who won the Summit League title and is making its second straight tournament trip, they would need to beat the winner between fifth-seeded VCU (26-8) and Mid-American Conference champion Akron (26-6) to make the Sweet 16 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
OSU, meanwhile, knows it can’t look past Iona, its first-round opponent.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions have the country’s second-highest scoring offense (80.7 points per game) while point guard Momo Jones, an Arizona transfer, is third nationally with 23 points per game. The Gaels’ wins this season include upsets of power-conference programs Georgia and Wake Forest.
"They’re a great basketball team," Craft said. "There are no bad basketball teams left. If you make the tournament, you know you have to be ready to go. We know they like to get up and down a little bit, and obviously they like to score the ball a lot. Transition is going to be very important."
An opening win would send OSU to a second-round matchup against the winner of seventh-seeded Notre Dame (25-9) and Iowa State (22-11).
Beyond Gonzaga, which is 30-2 but plays in a mid-major conference and was beaten by Illinois on its home floor earlier this season, the South Region also includes third-seeded New Mexico, Kansas State, and Wisconsin. The West regional games will be played in Los Angeles.