Caveat emptor: I had Georgetown going all the way, beating Louisville in the National Championship game. So to say that this tournament sort of fizzled out for me a week ago would be a bit of an understatement. Not because I basically threw away a few bucks on a few "for fun only" games, but because I've been raised a Georgetown fan for 30 years and I thought this was the year for them. And while I watched the Dunk City Eagles put on a clinic against the Hoyas for 40 minutes, in the top right of my screen (and switched back-and-forth to more-and-more during) I saw Ohio State doing pretty much the exact same thing to an over-matched Iona squad that looked the part of a CBI also-ran more than an NCAA tournament team.
As last weekend progressed, my interest was still a bit lower, and I watched the Ohio State/Iowa State game, very much caring about the result, but mostly out of boredom on a Sunday afternoon, rather than excessive desire to see my second love, the Buckeye basketball program, advance to their fourth consecutive Regional semi-final*. I even mustered up a loud groan when Aaron Craft missed his free throws, a louder cheer when he took that charge, an incredulous silence when he waved of Deshaun Thomas with 10 seconds to go, and a huge course of celebration when he put a dagger squarely through the chest of the Cyclones with 0.2 seconds to go.
*Note: I really don't want to come off as all Greggggggggg Easterbrook here, but I refer to the second weekend as the Regional round (i.e. Sweet 16 = Regional Semifinal), and I still refer to the regions of the bracket by city, not by cardinal direction (i.e. Ohio State plays in the Los Angeles Region, not the West). Problem?
Last weekend, Ohio State played two very different games of basketball, one overpowering show of force, and one nail-bittingly thrilling show of fortitude. In their third game, it was almost too difficult to guess which Ohio State side would show its face against Thad Matta's BFF Sean Miller and Arizona.
Considering the B1G vs Pac-12 matchup, an Iona-like game was more than possible. Even with criminally under-seeded Oregon getting as far as a 12-seed, the Pac-12 wasn't anything to take too seriously, and Arizona really hasn't been relevant since Lute Olson hung up his Wildcat spurs in 2008. Then again, Iowa State was a decent team all year, but similar to 'Zona, hadn't caused too much commotion even going into the Ohio State game. And two gutsy (though one ultimately incorrect) call by Craft was the only reason the Buckeyes ended up playing Arizona in the first place.
We all know what happened next:
With that one shot (and with memories of Craft's show days before) fresh in the minds of Buckeye fans, something about this team changed.
I can't tell you how many IMs, emails and chats in the LGHL hivemind centered around the problems with this Ohio State team over the last few months. The lack of a shut down offense (in the Duke game) a capable lane defense to combat opposing bigs (the Kansas game) and a viable second scorer (the first Illinois game, and several others throughout the year) were the oft-discussed topics, and heading into the end of the regular season, those questions were still without answers.
Now, those questions have at least some resolution, maybe by default as the Buckeyes now look forward to Wichita State in the Los Angeles Regional Final (see above note) with a trip to the Final Four. Matta's team is by and large the hungriest defensive unit left in the tournament, as Craft, Thomas, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Thursday night's hero LaQuinton Ross have honed their defensive game to make life almost impossible for opposing offenses.
And now, in the parlance of our basketball times, the Ohio State Buckeyes are officially elite.
You can keep the Super Bowl and even the BCS Championship game. Throw out a Stanley Cup, NBA Finals or World Series Game seven. Even the UEFA Champions League Final. None of it compares to what the Buckeyes will be playing in Saturday night at Staples Center. Of 68 teams that started this whole tournament, Ohio State will be one of only eight teams that have played well enough, survived long enough and got lucky just enough to win three games in succession under the most difficult conditions that exist. And on Saturday night, when the clock hits 00:00, they will have the chance to do what only 11 other Buckeye teams have ever done in the 110+ year history of the sport being played in Columbus.
Which is why it is so important to reflect on where this team has come from, and how they've done it in such short order. From a team that couldn't close, and looked like it would be lucky to finish in the middle of a great Big Ten Conference came a second place regular season finish (and a few Michigan free throws away sharing the regular season crown with Indiana). From that second place finish came a relatively quick run to a Big Ten Tournament Championship. From that championship came a two-seed in a very winnable bracket. And from that seeding now comes a chance to cut down the nets in the City of Angels.
Unless you picked Ohio State to come this far (or farther), you probably have lost a bit of interest in the goings on of the NCAA Tournament. But watch this Ohio State team play. Watch as this group has gelled at precisely the right time of the year and become not only a capable offensive outfit, but also a lock down, aggressive defensive juggernaut. This team is no longer just superfluous Thomas scoring clinics mixed in with Sam Thompson .GIFs. These Buckeyes have become a team of players whose singular goal has been realized just in the nick of time.
Elite in name. Elite in play. And one win away from the Final Four. Who saw that coming two months ago?