West regional bracket implodes around OSU

Buckeyes poised for No. 10 Iowa St.

Ohio State's Sam Thompson had 20 points against Iona. The Buckeyes are 27-7.
Ohio State's Sam Thompson had 20 points against Iona. The Buckeyes are 27-7.

DAYTON — LaQuinton Ross has tried to make sense of the incomprehensible and sift through the rubble of this year’s NCAA tournament bracket.

Like the most scarlet-tinted fans, who now see second-seeded Ohio State’s path to the Final Four in Atlanta lined with 700 miles of rose petals, the Buckeyes forward gladly watches the West region collapse around him.

In the tourney opener alone, third-seeded New Mexico, No. 4-seed Kansas State and No. 5-seed Wisconsin all lost. Late Saturday, top-seeded Gonzaga lost 76-70 in a third-round game against ninth-seeded Wichita State.

"I definitely look at it like a lot of competition that I saw us playing against, they’re out now," Ross said.

Just as his mind roams, though, the sophomore said his attention jolts back to the present. As teammate Sam Thompson warned, "No matter how well it may look to be shaping up, it doesn’t matter if we lose."

So Ohio State (27-7) now focuses its attention on to today’s game against 10th-seeded Iowa State (23-11), one of five higher seeds in the West to win their first game.

If you built a March darkhorse capable of a surprising run, it would look something like the Cyclones — a free-flinging bunch that can shoot their way in to or out of any game.

Befitting a team coached by Fred Hoiberg, a deadeye star at the school in the 1990s, the Cyclones have an eternal green light and lead the nation in 3-pointers (9.7 per game). ISU, which doesn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-7, hit a a combined 31 deep balls in two regular-season overtime losses to third-ranked Kansas.

Though Hoiberg joked he still has the best range in the program — "no doubt," he said — all five starters can shoot while senior Utah transfer Will Clyburn (14.9 points) leads six Cyclones who average at least 9.3 points. OSU coach Thad Matta said he can’t recall an opponent that spreads "that far out."

"We've got five players in our starting lineup that can all knock down a shot," Hoiberg said. "That makes it tough on the defense. It's a pick-your-poison type thing. Do you come out? Do you help? Do you stay back and not rotate? If you have proper spacing on the offensive end with the personnel that we have, we should be able to get a good look."

Ohio State counters with a defensive backcourt more aggressive than any the Cyclones have seen this season — OSU has not allowed an opponent to crack double-digits from beyond the arc during its nine-game winning streak.

Yet in any case, Iowa State — and another upended tournament — have the Buckeyes’ attention as they look to make a fourth straight Sweet 16 trip for the first time in program history.

"I’ve been in my hotel room watching all these games and seeing these teams losing to smaller schools," Ross said. "That can’t be us. I don’t want that to be us. I’m not trying to go home and be on ESPN with them talking about the bracketbusters."

As for Ohio State’s ever-clearing path, Matta knows nothing matters beyond the next game. The Buckeyes looked to have a charmed route to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest in 2010 after top-seeded Kansas and No. 3-seed Georgetown failed to escape the opening weekend. Instead, they fell to sixth-seeded Tennessee in the Sweet 16.

"Going through this tournament, people always say so and so lost," guard Lenzelle Smith said. "I really don’t focus on that. ... Looking ahead, saying this road is going to be easy allows you to take your mind off your next game and relax a little bit. That’s when you lose and you think you’re going to make it somewhere."

The idea, then, is lock in now and make it somewhere later.

"The West region," Deshaun Thomas said, "We’re going to try to hold it down."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.