There was a point during the 2012-13 Ohio State basketball season that the Buckeyes looked like a mediocre squad that was destined for a first weekend exit in the NCAA tournament.
Blowout losses at Illinois and Wisconsin, paired with close defeats to almost every other talented team on the early schedule, had Buckeye Nation counting the days until spring football. One eight-game winning streak and Big Ten tournament championship later, and it is Final Four or bust for the men in scarlet and gray.
While Thad Matta’s team was mired in inconsistency and plagued by frustrating losses, there was a mantra repeated ad nauseam: If a supporting cast would emerge and a No. 2 offensive option would step up behind Deshaun Thomas, this could be a dangerous group.
The talent level was clearly there, and the defense was still suffocating on all except the rarest of nights, but offensive ineptitude was gradually ruining the season.
However, the eight-game winning streak has revealed some noticeable improvements.
Aaron Craft has established himself as a reliable second option.
Players like LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson are scoring.
And the entire trajectory of the year has seemed to change.
The irony of it is that Thomas has seen his shooting percentage and quality of shot selection decrease during that same stretch. Thomas needs to play like he did during the first half of the Big Ten schedule to go along with Thompson’s newfound jumper, Craft’s penetration and Ross’ recent aggressiveness.
Then the Buckeyes really will be a dangerous group.
That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that the defense is even better than it was earlier in the season. This is thanks to the emergence of Shannon Scott as the Robin to Craft’s defensive Batman role.
What it all means is that the same Ohio State team that was so frustrating to watch for such a long time is now a Final Four quality squad. The Buckeyes excel on one end of the floor and have enough weapons on the other to win plenty of games.
The Buckeyes will have to win four of those contests in the West Region to find themselves playing on college basketball’s final weekend.
Even though the Iona contest comes against an offensively excellent squad that is capable of scaring the Bucks, there is not an easy victory on paper.
But no potential opponent is overwhelmingly daunting either.
A quick rundown of prospective matchups shows that Notre Dame and Iowa State have been plagued by inconsistency, Arizona has serious turnover issues that Craft and Scott would exploit and Wisconsin has fallen to the Buckeyes two out of three times this year (even if the Badgers are a perennial headache).
New Mexico would pose as a serious challenge to Matta and company, regardless of the Mountain West’s inaccurate label as a mid-major conference.
The Lobos style of play and size would give the Buckeyes trouble, but Ohio State has seen all of that in the loaded Big Ten. Michigan State brings size, Wisconsin slows the tempo and Indiana and Michigan constantly score in transition and behind the three-point line.
That leaves the No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
There is a feasible chance that the Zags get knocked out before the Elite Eight (where the Buckeyes would face them), but in this hypothetical matchup Ohio State already has a Big Ten blueprint in place to knock off the Bulldogs.
Fellow conference mate Illinois walked into Spokane and controlled the majority of the 40 minutes against Gonzaga. If the Big Ten’s seventh place finisher can beat the Bulldogs in their gym, the conference's second place team could certainly win on a neutral floor.
The Buckeyes are still more battle tested than the Zags even with their decent nonconference schedule.
Many of the same pieces from last year’s NCAA tournament game that saw Ohio State eliminate Gonzaga are still in place. Craft dominated that contest at both ends of the floor and would likely be able to carry the Buckeyes again with defensive pressure and timely baskets.
Frankly speaking, Gonzaga is a great team but also the weakest No. 1 seed in the bracket.
For as difficult as some of these potential opponents can be, the West Region is a much more friendly draw than, say, the loaded Midwest with Louisville, Duke, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and even the Pac-12 tournament champion Oregon as the No. 12 seed.
There is no such thing as an easy road in March.
But if the Buckeyes don’t take advantage of a wide open West Region and play their way into the Final Four, their 2013 NCAA tournament should be considered a bust.
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game