Today’s meeting between Ohio State and Dayton is about as juicy a rivalry game as one can get between two teams that almost never meet.
The two schools are separated by just 68 miles of Interstate 70 in Ohio, yet have not met in the regular season since 1988. Ohio State, ranked No. 23 and a perennial Big 10 Conference power, doesn’t have enough incentive to schedule Dayton, a smaller mid-major program, but one with a great basketball tradition of its own.
Then there’s the coaching rivalry. Ohio State’s 46-year-old Thad Matta is a mentor to Dayton’s Archie Miller, who is 35 and in just his third season as a head coach. Miller spent two years as an assistant to Matta, whom he referred to Wednesday as “the big guy.”
The subplot that could impact today’s game the most, however, is the matchup of Dayton guard Jordan Sibert against his old team.
Sibert, averaging a team-high 12.5 points a game, transferred from Ohio State in 2012 after two seasons with the Buckeyes. He sat out last season before leading the Flyers to a 23-10 record this season.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hyped about the game,” Sibert said Wednesday before his team’s practice session at First Niagara Center. “Playing against your friends and going against people you’ve grown up with is definitely something to be excited about.”
“But at the end of the day, I want to win,” Sibert said. “Me and my teammates want to be considered winners. It’s not about me. … It’s about the Dayton Flyers against Ohio State.”
Sibert was an all-state player at Princeton High in Cincinnati and chose Ohio State over West Virginia and Tennessee. He played 24 games for Ohio State when they went to the Final Four in 2012, but he averaged only 11 minutes and three points a game.
Sibert transferred in search of more playing time. He said Matta helped him find a landing spot at Dayton, and Miller had recruited him to Ohio State. He said he harbors no ill will toward his former school, but …
“Every transfer would love to go against their old school again,” Sibert said. “Definitely a big chip on my shoulder. I definitely want to go out there and play to the best of my ability, not do too much, whatever my team needs from me.”
Sibert represents a threat to the Buckeyes because he’s shooting 43.9 percent from three-point range, second in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Dayton is shooting a blazing 42 percent from downtown the last five games.
“Obviously, he’s done a phenomenal job of scoring the basketball,” said Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. “He’s one of their leading scorers. The way he’s shooting the ball, he’s done a good job of not being one-dimensional. Obviously, he can shoot it and put it in from the three-point line, but he can pull up and get to the rim when he needs to, too. We’ve seen him in the spring and the summer, and we’ve been through battles with him, so it’s not a huge surprise to us to see him being so successful.”
Ironically, Sibert’s shooting skill is one element that is missing from the Ohio State squad. The Buckeyes ranked seventh in the Big 10 in scoring offense and were eighth in three-point field-goal percentage.
Whether Ohio State has enough offense to make a deep run in the tournament is debatable. One thing that’s certain about the Buckeyes is they play great defense.
Ohio State ranks No. 3 nationally in three-point field-goal defense, holding foes to a rate of just .294.
“I don’t think they’ve seen anybody that’s guarded as well as we do,” said guard Lenzelle Smith. “So if it turns into a scoring game, they have to face a defense that they’ve never seen.”
Both Miller and Matta downplayed the game’s mentor-vs.-apprentice angle.
“To see him take his team and get them to the NCAA tournament, I couldn’t be happier,” Matta said. “Now the fact we’re playing each other is kind of an irony of coaching. But the longer you do this, you work with a lot of different people and paths are going to cross.”
“Regardless if it’s Ohio State or anybody else … we have to come in here and be ourselves,” Miller said. “Look to what’s gotten us here, not who we play and what part of the state they live in.”