They were a sixth-place team in the Big Ten last season, but with five starters returning from a squad that gave Nevada-Las Vegas fits on the Runnin' Rebels' road to the national title, the Ohio State Buckeyes entered the current season with high expectations.
"I like the potential of this team," Ohio State coach Randy Ayers said before the season. "I don't mind the high expectations that everyone has. In fact, I kind of like them. The challenge is to live up them."
And, for the most part, the Buckeyes have. Ohio State enters Friday's National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament first-round game against Towson State with a 25-3 record.
A top-10 team for the entire season, the fifth-ranked Buckeyes were given the top seed in the Midwest regional and the luxury of playing their first game in Dayton -- just over an hour's drive from their campus in Columbus.
Despite those obvious advantages, Ohio State will be attempting to right itself when it takes the court Friday. The Buckeyes closed their regular season with two losses -- and struggled to one-point wins in the two preceding games.
"You're always concerned [about peaking too early], but you always think you can come out of it," said Ayers, who is in his second year. "We'll just have to find our game again and, hopefully, we can get through this stretch."
Despite the late-season slump, Ayers says he still feels good about his team, which won a share of the Big Ten title (with Indiana) for the first time since 1971. The Buckeyes -- recruited by Gary Williams, a former Ohio State coach who is now coach at Maryland -- started the season with 17 straight wins. After losing by 14 at Michigan State on Jan. 31, they won seven in a row before the season-ending losses.
"With the way we ended the season, we were surprised at the top seed," Ayers said. "But the committee rewarded us for our overall season. And being co-champions of the Big Ten helped quite a bit."
It also helps to have one of the Big Ten's best players, forward Jim Jackson. The sophomore averaged 18.8 points and 5.3 rebounds and came up with the game-tying shot in the Buckeyes' double-overtime victory over Indiana on Feb. 17.
"Everything starts with Jimmy Jackson, who's a terrific player," Ayers said. "He works hard each day, as well as all of our players who have had a good year from day one."
The senior member of the team is 6-foot-8 center Perry Carter, a four-year starter who is averaging 12.1 points and eight rebounds. He andhelped the Buckeyes out-rebound opponents by more than seven a game.
L That should be a big lift against Towson's young front line.
Ayers spent much of yesterday watching films of Towson State and came away impressed. "I have a lot of respect for [Towson coach] Terry Truax. Despite losing [four starters], he's done a good job," Ayers said. "Devin Boyd is a spark and can shoot or penetrate. And Terrance Jacobs can go inside or outside. We're really concerned about the possibility of [Jacobs'] posting up our guards."
Two Ohio State players -- including starting point guard Mark Baker -- are from Dayton. Ayers hopes that, along with the Buckeyes' statewide appeal, will give his team a boost.
"You just have to hope it's a pro-Ohio State crowd," Ayers said. "We'll have to go to our strength, which means we'll try to get the ball quickly down the floor. Hopefully, we can fine-tune the problems that we've had and get untracked this week."
Towson on WBAL
WBAL radio (1090 AM) announced yesterday that it will broadcast Towson State's first-round NCAA game Friday against Ohio State. Jim West will do the play-by-play for the broadcast, which will begin at 7:15 p.m.