DAYTON — When the Buckeyes board their bus at University of Dayton Arena and make those two quick right turns to get on Interstate 75 north, they’ll either be on their way home for good or heading off to someplace entirely new for them.
The second-seeded Buckeyes (27-7) are one win away from reaching the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16 for the fourth year in a row, something they’ve never done in their storied basketball history. In their way is 10th-seeded Iowa State (23-11), a team that will test all areas of a defense that has been Ohio State’s strength down the stretch.
The winner heads to Los Angeles to face whoever is left in the West Regional and its upset-filled bracket.
“All we’ve talked about this week with our guys is the two games in Dayton,” coach Thad Matta said Saturday. “Hopefully on the bus ride home, we’re saying, ‘OK, this is the next opponent, and these are the four teams that are there.’”
The West already has provided several of the tournament’s double-take moments. No. 3 New Mexico, No. 4 Kansas State and No. 5 Wisconsin lost their opening games, wiping out the top of the bracket. No. 1 Gonzaga and Ohio State are the top two still standing.
It wouldn’t be a shock if the Buckeyes failed to make the trip West.
They’ve been knocked out during Matta’s two tournament appearances in Dayton, which is only an hour and 15 minutes away from their Columbus campus. Even though they had thousands of fans providing a home-court feel, they couldn’t survive the first weekend.
They were a No. 2 seed — just like this year — when they lost to Georgetown in the second round in 2006 on a day of upsets in Dayton. Defending national champion North Carolina also lost in the blue-and-red arena that year. The Buckeyes lost a double-overtime game to Siena in 2009, when they were an eighth seed in Dayton.
Neither of those teams had the versatility and defense that this one brings into today’s game against the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, which spreads out and tries to attack from everywhere on the floor. The Cyclones were at their best during a 76-58 win over Notre Dame on Friday night, taking only 21 shots from behind the arc. With the Fighting Irish concentrating so much on those perimeter shooters, Iowa State took the ball inside and dominated from the outset.
Iowa State is hoping the wide-open approach gets it back to the round of 16 for the first time since 2000, when the Cyclones lost in a regional final. The Cyclones take so many shots from behind the arc — nearly 44 percent of their total attempts — that it’s been tough for teams to keep up. Iowa State has scored at least 80 points in 20 of its games.
“I mean, we just have shooters,” said guard Chris Babb, who is second on the team with 62 3-pointers. “Any team on the court, normally 1-through-5 is somebody who can knock down a 3-point shot. When we go out in transition, coach (Fred) Hoiberg gives us that opportunity. If you have that open shot and you’re confident that you’re going to make it, go ahead and take it.”
Ohio State can’t let them slip into a take-it, make-it mentality.
The Buckeyes have been very good at shutting down the perimeter during their nine-game winning streak that includes the Big Ten Tournament title. That reliable defense wasn’t there earlier in the season.
“I think as a team, we’re all doing our roles now,” guard Shannon Scott said. “We’re not trying to do one-on-one basketball now. We’re all playing together, and that’s really helped us out a lot. Coach Matta talked to us about this — playing our game — and we know what we’ve got to do to win.”
That defense starts with point guard Aaron Craft, who had a season-high six steals during a 95-70 win over Iona on Friday night. Iowa State tries to get inside opposing defenses and force two players to come to the ball, leaving someone open on the perimeter. If Craft can keep them out, it’ll be a lot tougher for the Cyclones to get open threes.
And if the Cyclones get a little sloppy, they’ll be shooting a lot of threes out of necessity, just to try to catch up.
“I think Aaron Craft is as dominant a defensive player at the guard spot maybe that I’ve ever seen,” Hoiberg said. “He just poses so many problems as far as creating turnovers which lead to run-outs which lead to baskets. We’ve got to take great care of the basketball.”