LOS ANGELES — Ohio State’s basketball team began last week by watching footage of the biggest first-round upsets in NCAA tournament history.
No such ploy was needed Friday.
As the heavyweight Buckeyes prepared for today’s regional final against ninth-seeded Wichita State, players said a tourney season as upended as ever has gotten the point across just fine.
“We’ve seen so many upsets and we’ve seen the big teams get knocked off,” Lenzelle Smith said. “I’m pretty sure those teams are embarrassed. So we don’t have to talk about that now.”
No. 2 seed Ohio State (29-7) finds itself confronted with a seeming paradox: Is it possible to overlook an opponent in the Elite Eight?
The Buckeyes know some are using a Sharpie to write them into the Final Four — and maybe for good reason. The West region has parted, leaving only a program that lost five of its last 10 games in the Missouri Valley Conference in the way of a second straight trip to the sport’s final weekend.
March is a funny month. Think top-seeded Connecticut didn’t feel like the bracket had parted before its regional final game against No. 11-seed George Mason in 2006? Or No. 1 Kansas wasn’t thrilled to play 11th-seeded VCU in the 2011 Elite Eight?
Both titans lost — and OSU knows it could be next if they cast aside the Shockers as a Cinderella dancing on borrowed time.
“Maybe the first couple of games, you can be a Cinderella,” Buckeyes guard Sam Thompson said. “But after a certain point, a team belongs.”
“And if someone doesn’t think they do,” said guard Aaron Craft, “then I don’t know what they’re watching.”
In fairness, it depends on which games they watched. The Shockers (29-8) present an intriguing underdog case study. They lost their home opener to Buffalo — a team that couldn’t crack .500 in the Mid-American Conference — fell twice to Evansville, and skidded through a three-game conference losing streak against Indiana State, Northern Iowa, and Southern Illinois.
Like Ohio State, which has won 11 straight since a February loss at Wisconsin, WSU saved its best basketball for the only time that counts. The Shockers opened the tourney with an 18-point win over Pittsburgh, then stunned top-seeded Gonzaga 76-70 in the third round and routed No. 13-seed La Salle 72-58 in Thursday’s regional semifinal.
If Wichita State lacks a dominant scorer, it has experience and depth. The Shockers start three seniors while 11 players average double-digit minutes, including reserve forward and leading scorer Cleanthony Early (13.7 points). A frontline anchored by 7-footer Ehimen Orupke that helped WSU outrebound La Salle 44-23 will also keep OSU on edge.
Ohio State has a better pedigree, better resources, and better talent on a roster filled with four-star recruits — including two former McDonald’s All-Americans. But as OSU coach Thad Matta said, “That’s not going to score us a point or get us a rebound.”
Besides, coach Gregg Marshall said of a Shockers program making its second straight NCAA tournament appearance, “We're not named South Central Kansas State.”
“They are absolutely supposed to be here,” Thompson said. “They’re a great team. They play hard. They play scrappy. And they’re a team that’s on a roll. They’re playing their best basketball of the season.”
For OSU, that’s why a win today would be all the more satisfying.
“They play so well, but just like Cinderella, when the clock strikes 12, everything disappears and the magic goes away,” Smith said. “That’s what we want to do. We want to be that clock that strikes and they turn back into a normal team.”