March brought stormy times for Ohio State, to the point where it looked like this season would be one to forget.
With their best player, Kaleb Wesson, benched for violating team rules, the Buckeyes were pounded by Purdue on March 2 and Northwestern on March 6, then lost to Wisconsin in overtime on March 10.
With Wesson back, an important win over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament made Ohio State a bubble team for the selection committee. The Buckeyes (20-14) were slotted into the Midwest Region as a No. 11 seed and beat sixth-seeded Iowa State in the opening round Friday night.
“You could say it validates the committee’s decision, but we really felt like we had put together a really strong body of work and that our guys had earned it,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said.
Wesson had 21 points and 12 rebounds against the Cyclones.
“Kaleb was tremendous in terms of imposing himself,” Holtmann said. “I thought that was so important for that to happen, really throughout the game. If he didn’t impose himself physically, I thought we could really struggle, just to keep pace, as high-octane as they are.”
Now they get No. 3 seed Houston (32-3) today in Tulsa, Okla. The Cougars dispatched Georgia State in the opening round.
Houston was stung by an early dismissal from the tournament last year.
After getting by No. 11 seed San Diego State by two points in the opening round, the sixth-seeded Cougars ran into No. 3 seed Michigan and went home after a 64-63 loss.
“I feel like all the returners who came back from last year’s game, they’ve been on fire since June,” guard Corey Davis Jr. said. “We all experienced what it felt like to lose in March and especially in that type of fashion. ... You can’t have better motivation.”
Holtmann is suitably impressed.
“One of the best teams in the country,” he said of the Cougars. “I think I thought that all year. I’ve had a chance to watch them a little bit just because I admire how they play, how hard they play, how connected. I know they’re a veteran group. They’re one of the elite teams in the country.”
Top-seeded North Carolina is trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s tournament, when the Tar Heels couldn’t make it out of the opening weekend.
They’d much rather it to be like the last time they came into March Madness as a No. 1 seed. That was in 2017, when they rolled all the way to a national championship.
North Carolina (28-6) has the firepower. Graduate transfer Cameron Johnson averaged 17.1 points per game during the season and had 21 in a first-round win over Iona on Friday, despite the Tar Heels sleepwalking through the first half.
Freshman guard Coby White can score from anywhere, and Luke Maye is an intimidating inside presence and the only one of that trio to have experienced the glory of winning it all two years ago.
Last season, this was the point when the wheels fell off. Entering as a No. 2 seed, North Carolina swept by Lipscomb then was walloped by seventh-seeded Texas A&M 86-65 in the round of 32.
North Carolina is just 3-3 in second-round games in the last six seasons.
The Tar Heels will have to get by ninth-seeded Washington (27-8) this time to make it to the Sweet 16 for the 30th time. The Huskies, the Pac-12 regular-season champs, took down No. 8 seed Utah State in the opening round Friday.
Questions of the Washington players by reporters have tended to stray into the area of coach Mike Hopkins and his enthusiastic antics. He has been known to drop and do push-ups during press conferences, and he played so hard in the first scrimmage with his players that he ended up with a broken nose.
“He’s crazy,” forward Noah Dickerson said.
“Crazy, in a good way,” guard David Crisp added.
Said Hopkins: “The one lesson that I learned is be who you are. And I’m 49 going on 14 sometimes. I like to have fun. I like to interact.”
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