DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—Once Ohio State learned the identity of its first-round opponent in this year’s NCAA tournament, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta quickly went to work.
Matta remembered Siena had upset Vanderbilt last year, and he wasted little time telling his team.
“Probably about 15 seconds,” said guard Evan Turner.
These Saints can be downright devilish in March.
Matta may not have needed any motivational tool on his eighth-seeded Buckeyes (22-10), who will have the luxury of playing about an hour’s drive down Interstate 70 in Friday’s opening round at the University of Dayton Arena. Most of OSU’s players were already aware of ninth-seeded Siena (26-7), which followed up on last year’s tournament success by scheduling non-conference games against Tennessee, Wichita State, Oklahoma State and Kansas.
Although the Saints lost those matchups, they grew from the experience of playing bigger, stronger players from bigger, stronger conferences. Ohio State’s just another school.
“We didn’t have one game this year that we could sort of mail it in,” said coach Fran McCaffery. “I think that helped our focus and it made us a tough road team. This year, with the so-called target on our backs every night, they were able to focus and do the things necessary to win, especially at the end of the game. Obviously that’s what you need in this environment.”
The Saints will need all their experience to combat an Ohio State crowd. Make no mistake, this is Dayton Flyer country, but it’s smack in the middle of Buckeye territory.
“Last year, playing Vanderbilt in Tampa was one thing,” McCaffery said. “Because we were the heavy underdog, I think a lot of people got behind us. We recognize that will not be the case tomorrow night. There will be a lot of red. Hopefully maybe some of the Louisville people will jump towards us.
“You’re not going to be able to make plays from the bench. It’s going to be so loud in there that you’re going to have to really think and react on the court. Hopefully our experience has prepared us. We’ll see.”
National runners-up two years ago, the Buckeyes lost three players to the NBA—all were drafted in the first round—and didn’t make the NCAA field last season. They settled for the NIT and made the most of it by winning the title, a championship journey they planned to continue in the 2008-09 season.
Not seeing their school listed in the brackets on Selection Sunday a year ago was a humbling experience for the Buckeyes.
“It was kind of a wake-up call for us,” said sophomore forward Jon Diebler. “Just because we’re Ohio State doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a spot in the NCAA.”
The Buckeyes began the season without a senior on their roster, and after a 9-0 start, they took a major hit when junior swingman David Lighty, OSU’s most experienced player, broke his foot and was lost for the year. Matta worried that his squad might sputter and four losses in five games in February had many convinced Ohio State would again be watching the NCAA.
But led by the multitalented Turner, the Buckeyes rebounded by winning its last two regular-season games and then getting to the Big Ten tournament title game, where they lost to Purdue.
Matta isn’t worried about this club being already satisfied.
“I would if we had beaten Purdue,” he said. “The thing I love about this team is its youthfulness. They don’t know. Everything is new to them.”
The Saints, on the other hand, have sampled NCAA success and like the taste. McCaffery knew his team would be good, he just had no idea how good. Siena’s schedule in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference was going to challenge his squad, so he added a November tournament in Tampa, Fla., to see how the Saints would stack up.
“I felt like we needed to challenge this team on a daily basis,” he said.
Siena is one of the most balanced teams in the field. Four players average double figures with senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck, the MAAC player of the year, leading the way at 14.8 points. McCaffery’s bench isn’t terribly deep and against Ohio State he’ll need some of his reserves to come up big.
The Buckeyes will enjoy a size advantage inside, but what concerns McCaffery most is Ohio State’s length on the perimeter and outside shooting. Diebler, the most prolific scorer in Ohio high school history whose shot wouldn’t fall as a freshman, has made 43 percent of his 3-pointers. Freshman William Buford and Jeremie Simmons can also do damage from long range.
But it’s Diebler who scares the Saints most.
“He may have the quickest release that I’ve ever seen,” McCaffery said. “You think you’re on him and it’s gone in your face. Diebler is a concern because not only is he one of those guys that can put up a big number, he can put up three or four in a row in a minute and blow a game open.”
Typically, the 8 vs. 9 games are as competitive as any in the first round— and this one figures to be no different.
McCaffery has enjoyed hearing the so-called hoops experts give Siena, a tiny liberal arts college from Loudonville, N.Y., a legitimate shot against powerful Ohio State.
“We know what we’re going up against,” he said. “We have our hands full.”
Matta feels the same way.