The first time Towson State University's basketball team went to Dayton Arena this season, it was untested, unsure of itself and unaware of how good it would be without Kurk Lee and three other seniors.
This time, all those questions have been answered, but the mission won't be any easier.
Dayton administered a 99-79 loss to Towson in the season opener, and last night the Tigers drew Ohio State, the nation's No. 2 team, as their first-round opponent in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament on the Flyers' court.
It could have been worse. It could have been No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas, a team considered in a higher league.
"We dodged a bullet not getting UNLV, a big bullet to dodge," said point guard Devin Boyd.
"I think most of the guys were looking forward to anybody but Vegas," added Terrance Jacobs. "We were happy with the selection."
But the East Coast Conference champions got little more respect than last season, when their first NCAA appearance was against the top-seeded team in the tournament, Oklahoma.
Despite a strong performance in a 77-68 loss to the Sooners in Austin, Texas, the Tigers were rated 16th again in the Midwest Regional -- behind three teams in the tournament whose conferences were forced to participate in play-in games.
"We don't have a whole lot of control over that," said Towson coach Terry Truax. "Regretfully, that's how people on the committee see East Coast Conference basketball."
The Buckeyes, co-champions of the Big Ten Conference with a 25-3 record, are an intriguing opponent for Towson in a number of ways.
The bulk of their athletes were recruited during the tenure of Maryland coach Gary Williams, a former Terrapins teammate of Truax.
"I'm not going to ask Gary about them and put him in an awkward position," said Truax. "I would expect him to be loyal to his former assistant [Randy Ayers].
"In fact, I hope Gary sends them the tape of our Maryland game [the Tigers were routed, 93-69], so they'll get overconfident."
Additionally, the Buckeyes are on a two-game losing streak after an 80-69 setback at Iowa yesterday and do not possess overwhelming size, a factor that can trouble Towson.
"I've seen them a bunch of games on television," said Tigers forward Chuck Lightening. "They have the potential to play soft sometimes. But they definitely have great talent."
Still, Ohio State is unlikely to take Towson lightly, as Oklahoma may have.
Ayers said: "I know Coach Truax, and he will try to control the tempo against us. I'm concerned about Towson State. Our job right now is to get the films and get ready for Towson State."
Asked whether Ohio State received a tougher first-round opponent than other top-seeded teams, Ayers said: "I can't worry about that. You have to expect it when you lose two in a row. Teams have come at us recently [two straight losses to Iowa and Purdue], and we've had a tough week of basketball."
The Buckeyes will have the advantage of playing only two hours from their home.
Ayers said the chance to play in Dayton was "a good opportunity to play in front of a home-type crowd. It also gives us an extra day to prepare."
The Tigers (19-10) will match up reasonably well in size with the Buckeyes front line of Treg Lee, Jimmy Jackson and Perry Carter with Lightening, their best athlete, probably drawing Jackson.
"Ohio State is as good as anybody we could have played," Truax said. "We don't match up well with North Carolina or Arkansas. And I like the fact that we've played on that court better than if we hadn't. I don't think there's a lot of difference between Dayton and Ohio State."
Five Tigers enter with tourney experience (Boyd, Lightening, William Griffin, Larry Brown and Lewis Waller), and this is a team that has played well on the road.
"We're younger, but we've responded like a veteran club away from home," said Truax. "That surprised me."
Both teams beat their two common foes, American and Youngstown, but the Buckeyes won by much greater margins (36 and 45 points). Towson prevailed by nine and five.
"The first time we were at Dayton, we rushed things, didn't have a real lineup and I was in foul trouble," said Boyd.
NOTES: Tigers fans are asked to call 825-4535 for information on travel arrangements to Friday's game and 830-2244 for tickets. For additional tournament information, dial 830-2758.
Record: 25-3 (15-3 in Big Ten Conference).
Entry into tournament: automatic bid as Big Ten champion.
Top players: Jim Jackson, 6-6 soph. F, (18.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 apg), Perry Carter, 6.8 sr. C (12.1 ppg, 8 rpg), Jamaal Brown, 6-4 jr. G (12.1 ppg, 2.3 apg), Treg Lee, 6-8 sr. F (11.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Mark Baker, 6-1 jr. G (11.0 ppg, 5 apg, 2.4 rpg).
Season review: Ohio State, despite losing its last two regular-season games to Iowa and Purdue, finished in a tie with Indiana for the Big Ten title and was declared champion because it beat Indiana twice. Those two wins over Indiana -- 97-95 in double overtime Feb. 17 at home and 93-85 Jan. 21 at Indiana -- were two of the Buckeyes biggest. Ohio State's other wins over then-ranked teams came Jan. 3 against Iowa (63-59) and against Georgetown (71-60). All three of Ohio State's losses have come on the road, to Iowa, 80-69, yesterday, to Purdue, 72-67, last Wednesday and to Michigan State, 75-61, Jan. 31. The Buckeyes were 17-0 before the loss to Michigan State. Jim Jackson, candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, is capable of playing every position. Randy Ayers is 42-16 in two seasons as coach after taking over for the departed Gary Williams.