COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The collective short-term memory of the Ohio State basketball team isn't as clear as its long-term recall. The Buckeyes probably can't tell you about what happened down at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati last weekend as much as they can about what took place last year at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
Forget the two easy victories in this year's NCAA tournament, over Mississippi Valley State and Connecticut. What the Ohio State players, coaches and fans will take to Lexington, Ky., for this week's NCAA Southeast Regional is the memory of last year's shocking loss to St. John's.
"It's still with me," Jim Jackson, the team's junior All-American, said here Monday afternoon as he sat in the bleachers of St. John Arena. (How's that for a constant reminder?) "I felt we were a pretty good team. But last year we were trying to hold on to what we had and we got upset."
A year ago, the Buckeyes won their first 17 games and finished the regular season with a 25-3 record, but had lost their last two before the NCAA tournament. After struggling by Towson State and Georgia Tech in the first two rounds, the top seed in the Midwest Regional met the Redmen.
In one of the more surprising outcomes during the tournament, bTC St. John's led 43-24 at halftime, went ahead by as many as 25 in the second half and eased to a 91-74 victory. The Sweet 16 appearance, the first for Ohio State since 1983, turned into a very bitter experience for the Buckeyes.
"We were so devastated," said senior forward Chris Jent. "We're motivated not by fear, but by the feeling of that loss. We don't want to feel that again."
That defeat has been a driving force for Ohio State throughout what has been another fine season under third-year coach Randy Ayers. It will certainly be carried with them onto the court Friday night at Rupp Arena, where the Buckeyes, 25-5 and top-seeded once again, take on 18th-ranked, fourth-seeded North Carolina (23-9).
"We as a coaching staff used it [the loss to St. John's] as a motivating tool earlier in the year," Ayers said in his office Monday. "But I think we have to concentrate on the game we have to play now. If we're still thinking about St. John's, and not North Carolina, we could get beat."
It is a similar scenario for Ayers as well. Since being promoted from assistant coach after Gary Williams left for Maryland in 1989, Ayers has gone 69-22 and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year the past two seasons. But it was suggested that Ayers, 35, was out-coached by Lou Carnesecca of St. John's last year.
Now he will be X-and-Oing it with Dean Smith, the legendary coach ofthe Tar Heels who last weekend passed an even larger living legend, former UCLA coach John Wooden, for the most victories (49) in the NCAA tournament. Smith, the game's winningest active Division I coach, has led North Carolina to 12 straight Sweet 16 appearances.
"I think a great deal rides on this game for me," Ayers said with his typical candor. "You want to prove you can win the big games. Even though we've won some big games, you have to prove it in the tournament."
Ayers learned a great deal from last year, when the Buckeyes burned out after the fast start and were slowed to a crawl by the sprained ankle injury to point guard Mark Baker, who hobbled through the tournament. Though Ohio State won the Big Ten outright when Indiana lost to Purdue on the final day of the regular season, Ayers lessened his team's workload before the NCAA tournament began.
"Last year we were tired, more emotionally than physically," said Ayers. "All the attention during the regular season, being a top 10 club the whole year, took its toll. I gained a lot of respect and admiration for schools like North Carolina who are in the top 10 year in and year out. I think we're a lot fresher going into the Sweet 16 this year."
Ohio State is a much different team than it was a year ago. While Jackson, who, at 6 feet 6 and 220 pounds, can play three positions, is still very much the focus of the offense, he doesn't have to carry the Buckeyes so much on his broad shoulders. That much was evident last week in Cincinnati.
Jackson, a 52-percent shooter during the regular season, missed his first eight shots against Mississippi Valley State and his first nine against Connecticut, finishing 3-for-13 for 13 points against the Delta Devils and 7-for-26 for 23 against the Huskies. But the Buckeyes won both games easily.
"I think if Jimmy isn't shooting well, he doesn't force things because he has confidence in the other guys on the team," said Jent, a 6-7, 220-pound blue-collar type whose 13 points a game is second on the team to Jackson's 23. "And I think a lot of the guys have more confidence than they did last year."