SAN ANTONIO (AP)—Ohio State and Memphis are seeded 1-2 in the South Regional, each boasting 33 wins and only three losses.
They have the nation’s two longest winning streaks: 20 straight for the Buckeyes, 25 in a row for the Tigers.
Both are coming off gritty one-point wins.
So, going into their Final Four-or-bust matchup Saturday, the advantage goes to … who?
Logic points to the Buckeyes because of the tougher road they’ve traveled— having gone through a Big Ten schedule, as opposed to Conference USA for Memphis — and the fact Ohio State has Greg Oden. Even if the fabulous freshman is coming off two rough games, that might only mean he’s ready to take out his frustrations on someone.
Plus, the Buckeyes have a little extra motivation in trying to deliver the national championship their football cohorts failed to bring back to campus.
The football-basketball ties have become stronger after their last two wins have featured miraculous comebacks and tight finishes, reminiscent of the ’02 football team that won it all. Football coach Jim Tressel even sends frequent text messages to basketball coach Thad Matta.
Most of all, there are the expectations that come along with having been ranked No. 1 going into the tournament.
“There’s no room for error now,” said freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr., whose free throw with 6.5 seconds left provided the final point in an 85-84 victory over Tennessee on Thursday night. “You have to pay attention in every scouting session and every time we watch film. There’s no time for people to mess up right now.”
Hmm. That sort of pressure might indicate the real advantage goes to Memphis.
The Tigers flaunted how loose they’re feeling when they met with reporters Friday. The news conference bordered on slapstick at times.
Among the highlights: coach John Calipari making a bizarre comparison about buffaloes and geese going to the edge of a cliff, all sorts of references to the C-USA champs trying to crash the Final Four party and 6-foot-9, 260-pound Joey Dorsey proclaiming he has the physical edge over 7-foot, 270-pound Oden.
“I’m Goliath,” Dorsey said, smiling wide. “He’s the little man.”
Dorsey knew he’d be asked a lot of questions about defending Oden, so he came prepared. He quickly mentioned that he averages more rebounds per game than Oden.
Of course, he didn’t bother noting his lead is a not-so-whopping 0.38 per game. Or that Oden was ahead until grabbing a season-low three boards against Tennessee; one more and the big men would be tied.
“I’m going to outwork him to every ball,” said Dorsey, who is built like Karl Malone. “I think I’m going to have like a 20-rebound night. Coach Cal said, `This is going to be your breakout game.”’
Another good story not marred by facts is Calipari’s take that everyone keeps waiting for Memphis to crumble.
“We may be the first Cinderella two-seed in the history of the tournament,” Calipari quoted staffer Rod Strickland, the former NBA point guard, as saying.
Calipari went on to suggest that the NCAA and CBS don’t want Memphis to win, although he said so with humor, not anger. When questions came back about why he thought those things, he smiled and noted that he never exactly said that.
But he didn’t deny it.
“We’re not in a BCS league,” he said. “We’re not one of those schools that’s supposed to do this. We’re doing it with an unorthodox style.”
“I kind of enjoy it.”
“Really enjoy it.”
Ohio State will easily be the best team Memphis has played this season, something that also was said about Texas A&M when the Tigers faced the Aggies last round and Nevada the round before that.
Playing in C-USA these days doesn’t prepare a team for the big time. Calipari tried by scheduling non-conference games against Arizona, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Kentucky.
Alas, only Tennessee made it to the second weekend of the tournament, adding to the perception that Memphis has gotten here the easy way.
But teams don’t get this far in the tournament in consecutive years on luck alone—especially not after losing their top three scorers in between.
Calipari invited sophomores Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson to his house last summer and told them they had to take over as team leaders. Their leadership was on display against A&M, with Douglas-Roberts using an early alley-oop dunk to show his sprained left ankle wasn’t a problem and Anderson, a 64-percent foul shooting, hitting a pair with 3.1 seconds left to win by one.
“It’s the Elite Eight now,” said Ohio State guard Jamar Butler, no doubt repeating a message Matta has sent his club. “Throw the conferences out, they’re here for a reason.”