By GREG BEACHAM
LOS ANGELES — During Ohio State’s journey to the Final Four last season, Aaron Craft learned the importance of focusing on the next 40 minutes, not the three-week trip.
So Craft didn’t realize the highest seeds in the West Regional were dropping like dominoes until earlier this week. He purposely didn’t learn much about ninth-seeded Wichita State until Thursday night, when the powerful Buckeyes found out they’re facing the unheralded Shockers on today (12:55 p.m. HST, CBS) for another ticket to the Final Four.
“I think that really helped a lot — just getting caught up in the moment and thinking about where you are and what you need to do to get out,” Ohio State’s star point guard said. “We watch all the games. Obviously we’re basketball fans, but I kept saying, ‘Where is this team? Which bracket is this in? What is that?’ It wasn’t until after we played Iowa State that I realized our bracket was being destroyed number-wise, and really realizing how tough every team was.”
Craft’s point is a theme echoed on both sides of Staples Center on Friday during workouts for the final game in a regional that emphasized the parity throughout college basketball when six of the top eight seeds lost on the first weekend.
Anybody who tries to paint this matchup as David facing down Goliath will get polite disagreement from the supposed big guy and the alleged little guy alike.
That’s just not how college basketball works anymore, according to both Craft and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. Neither team has any doubt Wichita State (29-8) belongs on the same court with the mighty Buckeyes (29-7) for a chance to go to Atlanta.
“We have to go out there and play our hearts out,” Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early said. “So regardless if their facilities are a little bit bigger than ours, they’ve got to lace up their shoes just like us.”
Sure, the Shockers can’t match Ohio State’s financial resources or alumni base. They’ve got everything else necessary to play with the Buckeyes for those 40 minutes — and even pull off one more surprise in their charmed run through March.
“What I love is the fact they’re not really bouncing off the wall,” Marshall said of his Shockers. “They seem to be legitimately unsatisfied thus far. We know we’ve got a great opponent and a tremendous challenge, but at the same time, we’re in that Elite Eight game. We have an opportunity, and our best is going to be hard to beat.”
Wichita State is making its first regional finals appearance since 1981, looking for a spot in its first Final Four since the school’s only previous trip in 1965. The Shockers’ 29 victories match the school record set just two years ago under Marshall, the low-profile, high-energy coach who spent part of Friday fending off questions about UCLA’s job vacancy from eager Los Angeles reporters.
And Wichita State is still burning with confidence from beating top-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga last weekend — not bad for a team that didn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, but could get the MVC back to the Final Four for the first time since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the 1979 title game.
“So many non-BCS schools are getting the opportunity to be in the NCAA tournament and prove that they belong — not only belong, but can win the whole thing,” Marshall said. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The programs then start selling out, raising revenue for the athletic department, and ultimately giving greater visibility to their universities, and what is that worth?”
Ohio State has a good idea of the value of this run.
With 11 consecutive victories since Feb. 17, Ohio State is on the brink of its 11th Final Four appearance. The second-seeded Buckeyes are a win away from matching last season’s accomplishments despite losing Jared Sullinger to the NBA.
What’s more, leading scorer Deshaun Thomas thinks the Buckeyes’ current run has been easier than last year’s March surge, suggesting Ohio State still has much more to show.
“We’re playing at a higher level now,” Thomas said. “Last year was tougher, going through Gonzaga, Syracuse and Cincinnati. Those were some great teams. This year, we’re on a roll right now. Once Gonzaga and a couple of higher teams on our side got put out (this year), it opened doors for us. But again, you can’t take these teams like Wichita State lightly. We know it’s going to be tough. Gonzaga losing on our side kind of helped us leave the door open, but we’re still going to treat these teams like Gonzaga.”
Craft believes Ohio State has more momentum than last season, including those last two victories on dramatic, tiebreaking 3-pointers by Craft against Iowa State last weekend and LaQuinton Ross against Arizona on Thursday night.
Although Ohio State and Wichita State haven’t met since 1963, the Buckeyes think they know what to expect.
Wichita State will try to force a speedy tempo on Ohio State, using its pressing defense and stellar rebounding to push the Buckeyes into uncomfortable situations. The Shockers are big and tough under the basket, but could struggle to keep up when the Buckeyes use an undersized lineup.
“What we have to do is, don’t let their angriness affect us,” Thomas said. “Don’t play into their hands. Don’t let them speed us up, because that’s what they’re going to try to do. We know they’re going to come out aggressive, pressing, and try to do anything to make us throw the ball away.”