PITTSBURGH – It started as a gentle suggestion from their coach. "Don’t be too cool to have a meeting," Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said to a few of his starting players after dinner Friday night.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. turned to Aaron Craft and said, "I think we better do something." Craft agreed and since the hotel room he shared with star forward Jared Sullinger was across from the elevators, and therefore the largest of any of the others, he offered to host. Texts went out to the other starters, and soon the five men who make up the Buckeyes’ lineup were piled inside, sitting on beds, chairs, anyplace they could find.
All believed the same thing. They had to talk.
"We felt like we had taken our [first] game [in the NCAA tournament] for granted," Craft told Y!Sports on Saturday after Ohio State beat Gonzaga 73-66 to advance to the Sweet 16 in the East Region. "We didn’t want that to happen again."
Or as Smith later would say, "It changed the perception of us as playing as a team."
And it might be the reason they won the game.
"I would like to think it helped," Craft said with a laugh.
Yes, the Buckeyes needed this. They had to have a talk. Few teams in this tournament are more talented. Were it not for a four-point loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final, they would have been a No. 1 seed. Still, something didn’t feel right. People weren’t talking. Team play was fading. Things were become too individualistic. Something needed to be said.
Everyone talked. Everyone aired complaints. It quickly became clear that many felt they beat Loyola (Md.) in the opening game simply because they were taller, stronger and faster, not because they were playing better.
"Nobody was yelling [in the meeting]," Smith said.
Instead they talked about communication, about talking to each other and understanding each other and realizing where each player needed to be. It didn’t last long – maybe 10 or 15 minutes – but the message had been delivered. And in the time it took to reveal whatever grievances each had, they had become closer.
"When we come to play, I don’t know how far we can go," Smith said.
They are building resilience at Ohio State and at just the right time. After losses early in the season to teams such as Kansas and Indiana, an emphasis was put on playing tougher, working to grind out wins rather than rely on Sullinger’s dominance.
An amount of time was dedicated every practice to the situations that arise at the end of games:
OK, two minutes left, down three, here’s what we run.
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And they do it over and over until everyone understands the plays that will come at each critical moment of the night. The point was to make sure that realization came at late moments, such as Saturday, with Gonzaga pushing, a 10-point lead suddenly down to two.
"Thad puts a big emphasis on the defensive end," assistant coach Jeff Boals later said.
And this is where Ohio State becomes dangerous, why it might not just be a real threat to get to the Final Four but maybe the title game as well. If it can grasp the grind of the final minutes, forcing teams to make mistakes and take bad shots, few will be able to beat it.
Gonzaga, after storming back to nearly take the Sweet 16 away, didn’t score for nearly four minutes at the end of the game. Much of that had to do with Ohio State’s defense, which blocked shots, cut off lanes and forced Gonzaga’s normally reliable guards to make mistakes they usually don’t commit.
In the end, a good deal of this victory and a second tournament weekend in Boston belongs to Craft, who kept driving through the Zags’ defense for 17 points and 10 assists. More importantly, he held Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos to 3-of-13 shooting, something that did more to break the Zags than anything else.
Later, it was Craft who the Ohio State players would remember diving for loose balls, deflecting passes, knocking the ball from Gonzaga players’ hands. This inspired them, they said, making them more ferocious. Ultimately, this was the inspiration that got them through the kind of win that many other high-seeded teams did not have in this tournament.
"He’s very contagious," Matta said.
In so many ways.
Because even if Craft is just an apple-cheeked sophomore listed generously at 6 feet 2, he may well be this team’s heart, the one that makes the others go, the one who knew he had to offer his room for the most important meeting of the season.
The meeting that inspired the Ohio State Buckeyes and may have turned them into the most dangerous team left in the tournament.
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