Ohio State coach Thad Matta hasn’t gotten past the round of 32 in two previous NCAA tournament trips to Dayton, despite getting to play de facto home games at UD Arena.
But those past two squads were flawed. The current version of the Buckeyes seems to have all the pieces needed to make a lengthy March run.
Deshaun Thomas scored 24 points, Sam Thompson had career highs of 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Aaron Craft was up to his usual mischief on defense in leading the Buckeyes to a 95-70 victory over Iona before a scarlet-clad sellout crowd of 12,353 Friday.
OSU (27-7), which has won nine straight games, will meet Iowa State at 12:15 p.m. Sunday with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16. The Indiana-Temple game will follow at approximately 2:45 p.m.
Craft scored only four points but had six steals and seven assists. And the junior guard and other long-armed defenders stifled Iona star Lamont “Momo” Jones. Before the game, the two-time MAAC player of the year said, “I don’t feel like there’s anybody who can stop me.” But he finished with nine points (14 below his average) on 3-of-15 shooting. It was only his second single-digit game this season.
“Give credit where credit is due,” Jones said. “I think I took some bad shots. Things just didn’t fall tonight. Can’t knock the guy. He played some good defense.”
The Gaels (20-14) are second in the nation in scoring at 80.7 points per game, but the Buckeyes, who had 34 fastbreak points, were perfectly content to play at a quick pace.
“We said going in, if they want to run, let’s run,” Matta said. “Our biggest concern, though, with that said, is we weren’t going to trade baskets with them. … They got us in the first half on two transition baskets, and that was a huge topic of discussion at halftime.
“But I’ve always liked to play kind of up tempo, and I thought, quite honestly, to go 25-to-10 in assists-to-turnovers, we may really good decisions in terms of that tonight.”
The Buckeyes are seeded second in the West regional, and their road to the Final Four has gotten considerably less daunting.
Third-seeded New Mexico, fourth-seeded Kansas State and fifth-seeded Wisconsin all have been bounced. The West was already considered the weakest of the four regions even before the upsets.
It’s the first time since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 in 1985 that seeds 3, 4 and 5 in a single region all lost their opening games.
Craft set the tone from the start. In the first 5:44, he made two steals and caused another turnover by tying up a dribbler with the possession arrow in his favor.
One of the takeaways was spectacular. He flicked the ball toward the sideline and saved it to a teammate with a behind-the-back-pass while falling out of bounds. It led to a transition dunk by Evan Ravenel and was part of a 22-2 run by the Buckeyes that turned a 6-5 deficit into a 27-8 lead.
The MAAC champs scored on 12 of their next 13 possessions to cut the deficit to 37-33. But the Buckeyes, who have no seniors in their starting lineup, then went on a 6-0 surge, including a one-handed ally-oop dunk by Thompson, to take a 43-33 halftime lead.
OSU then scored the first nine points of the second half.
Asked about Craft, Iona coach Tim Cluess said: “I thought he’s extremely intense and strong on defense. I think he gets away with body blocking you, grabbing you, holding you, but he’s in very good position to do that, and he plays great angles. He has a passion to stop people, which most players today don’t have.
“I really told him after the game that he’s one heck of a defensive player. Would love to have a guy like that on our team. I think he showed a few minutes ago why he’s considered one of the best defensive players in the country.”
Matta said: “I thought he was tremendous. He just had a great way about him, really on both ends of the floor. It was like there was a couple of him out there at times. Aaron is Aaron. That’s what he does.”
NOTES: The trigger-happy Thomas reached his total on just 12 shots, making eight of them. He was 3-for-3 on 3-pointers.
• Based on the attire of Cluess and his staff, it must have been casual Friday. All of them wore sweat suits for the game.
• The Buckeyes will be shooting for their fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16. Iona has played in nine NCAA tourneys but has never won a game.
• On the potential of snow coming Sunday, the NCAA’s Dave Gavitt said in a statement: “We are monitoring the weather situation on the ground and in our tournament control center and are fully prepared. We do not anticipate any game delays. … In Dayton, all of the teams and officials are already onsite. We are exploring extending their hotel stays if their travel is delayed after the games because of inclement weather.”