As the Ohio State men’s basketball team (25-9, 12-9) hit I-70 to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament, it was easy to miss the turn off for I-75.
Just down the road from the exit was the campus of an in-state opponent who now looks to unseat the higher-seeded OSU in an attempt to show the rest of the state what its capable of.
When the draw for the NCAA Tournament was announced Sunday, the No. 6-seeded Buckeyes found themselves paired with 11-seed Dayton (23-10, 11-7), a matchup that could potentially divide households in the so-called “Buckeye State.”
“We’re excited. We think it’s a great opportunity. Obviously an in-state opponent, so there’s a lot to play for,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “Our season is on the line, their season is on the line, so we’re going to do all that we can give our best effort on Thursday.”
This season there are four teams hailing from Ohio — OSU, Dayton, Cincinnati and Xavier — but the only matchup between in-state rivals that will occur before the Final Four is the Buckeyes and Flyers.
All-time, OSU has compiled a combined record of 13-7 against the other Tournament teams from Ohio, including going 4-2 against Dayton.
But senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said even though OSU has historically had success against the Flyers, the team would be wrong to look past anyone in the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, at this point in the season you don’t want to overlook anybody,” Smith Jr. said. “I think having the type of team we have, it’s easy to kind of overlook people but I feel like now, with an in-state rivalry and them having a few guys on the team who we’re familiar with … That alone says don’t overlook them, they’re fighting just as hard as we are and obviously they don’t want their season to be over either so we’ve got to be ready to play.”
An attempt to escape from under the shadow cast over the state by Columbus will likely be a big motivating factor for Dayton, something coach Thad Matta said he is aware of, and will keep the Buckeyes on their toes.
“I think for this team (OSU), it’s a great thing … There won’t need to be a wake-up call,” Matta said. “There won’t need to be a, ‘Who is this? Who are they? What conference are they in? I haven’t heard of that guy,’ or anything like that. So I like that from (that) perspective.”
Senior guard Aaron Craft was quick to dispel any idea of the Buckeyes having a superiority complex about being the most recognized program in the state.
“I mean we haven’t heard anything about big brother/little brother,” Craft said Wednesday. “Right now, everyone’s even. It doesn’t matter what league you play in, how well you did in that league. Right now it’s about finding a way to win tomorrow. Dayton is a great team that’s won and played against great competition all year, just like we have. Just because we’re Ohio State and they’re Dayton doesn’t mean anything to us.”
Since joining the Buckeyes for the 2004-05 season, Matta has compiled a 14-0 record against in-state teams.
One of those wins came when OSU was crowned champion of the National Invitation Tournament in 2008, having to beat the Flyers in the quarterfinals that season.
“Yeah, I mean we played Dayton a few years ago in here. That doesn’t really concern me … The fact that we’re playing a team (from) an hour away, five hours away (in Buffalo, N.Y.), that’s kind of irrelevant for me,” Matta said.
Despite all this, Matta said he was happy to see Dayton in the field of 68.
“My first initial reaction was I was excited to see Dayton up there,” Matta said.
Adding intrigue to the matchup is the connections that Dayton coach Archie Miller and redshirt-junior guard Jordan Sibert have with the Buckeyes.
Sibert — leading scorer for Dayton with an average of 12.5 points per game this season — was a part of the recruiting class that brought Smith Jr. and Craft to OSU, and Miller spent time under Matta as an assistant coach in Columbus.
Matta said he was excited to see one of his former assistants make the Tournament, but he knows it will be a battle.
“I wanted Arch to get in the NCAA Tournament. Then I was kind of like, ‘Huh, here we go,’” Matta said. “But I think from the perspective, I’m just happy for him in terms of getting in. But to be honest, I won’t even see him down there, during the game. That’s kind of irrelevant to me.”
Tipoff for the second round matchup is scheduled for Thursday at 12:15 p.m. in Buffalo, N.Y.