Ohio faces Creighton with Sweet 16 spot on the line

According to Jeff Boals, there’s plenty of room left on the bandwagon.

As the only team from the state of Ohio left in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the No. 13-seeded Bobcats (17-7) will welcome any and all support on Monday when they battle fifth-seeded Creighton (21-8) in a West Region second-round game starting at 6:10 p.m. at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Ohio sophomore Ben Roderick (right) shoots over Virginia’s Trey Murphy III during a 2021 NCAA Tournament first round game on Saturday, March 20 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The game will be broadcast live on TNT.

On the line is a spot in the Sweet 16 round, and a matchup against either No. 1 seed Gonzaga or No. 8 Oklahoma next Saturday or Sunday. The time, venue and network for that game will be determined late Monday night.

Ohio, which reached the Sweet 16 in its last tournament appearance in 2012, is the Buckeye State’s lone surviving program in the Big Dance. Be it Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo or Cincinnati, the Bobcats are expected to have a few more additional fans invested on Monday night.

“Bring them on,” Boals said Sunday about becoming the team of choice in the region. “We got room for everybody.”

The Bobcats don’t care if the fanbase fills up with a ton of late-comers. They’re peaking at the right time, and looking to build on a NCAA resume – which is already the best in the Mid-American Conference.

“This feeling is like none other,” said sophomore Ben Roderick on Sunday, while still basking in the aftermath of OU’s 62-58 win over No. 4 seed Virginia on Saturday night.

“We’re soaking it all in, we’re having so much fun,” he continued. “We’re just playing for each other.”

Ohio will also be playing for a piece of history. Only five teams in MAC history have reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, in its current format (since 1985). Ball State (1990) was the first to do it, and Eastern Michigan followed in 1991. Miami reached the second weekend in 1999 and Kent State (2002) still has the longest tournament run of a MAC team with its run to the Elite Eight.

Ohio pulled off the surprising run to the regional semifinals in 2012, before falling in overtime to the region’s No. 1 seed North Carolina in St. Louis.

Ohio already has more NCAA wins than any other MAC team overall (8), and with a victory over Creighton could become the first MAC school to have more than one appearance in the Sweet 16 since the field expanded in 1985.

That fact, along with all the glowing profiles and videos and social media posts, have likely permeated the ‘controlled environment’ that all tournament teams are inhabiting in Indianapolis. If the ‘Cats want to keep playing another week, they’ll have to tune the noise out.

“In the social media world, it’s hard to hide,” Boals said. “We have to be mature enough to handle success.

“Being ‘cool’ gets you beat. Being comfortable gets you beat.”

Creighton, meanwhile, will be trying to win consecutive games in the tournament for the first time in the program’s history. The Bluejays haven’t been to the round of 16 since 1974.

Creighton spent the season ranked inside the top 25, and will enter tabbed as No. 19 in the last AP poll. The Bluejays finished second in the regular season in the Big East, but faced a test of their fortitude late in the year.

Racially insensitive remarks from coach Greg McDermott rocked the program, and then the Bluejays were crushed in a 25-point loss in the Big East Tournament by Georgetown.

In the first round on Saturday, Creighton survived a 63-62 nail-biter against No. 12 seed UC Santa Barbara. Christian Bishop hit two free throws with 16.0 seconds left to grab the lead, and the Gauchos missed a short jumper at the buzzer.

“We’ve been through a lot,” McDermott said. “And the reason we’ve been through a lot is on me. I’ve had to work to repair some of those relationships and the people that I hurt.”

Despite those issues, the Bluejays will provide as tough — if a different kind of — a test for the Bobcats inside historic Hinkle. Creighton will have a potent offense build on quick decisions, and quick shots from long range.

The ‘Jays rank 20th nationally with an adjusted offensive rating of 114.0, and 44.3 percent of all their shots havecome from behind the arc. More than a third of the team’s points come from 3-pointers (37.7 percent, 33rd nationally).

Creighton will play an assortment of shooters on the floor at all times, with First Team All-Big East guard Marcus Zegarowski leading the charge. Zegarowski leads five starters in double figures with 15.6 points per game, and is shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range.

A trio of 6-5 wings operate on the fringes. Damien Jefferson (12.0 ppg, 36.0 percent from 3), Mitch Ballock (10.1, 39.0) and Denzel Mahoney (12.5 ppg, 33.2) will open the lane for Bishop (6-7, 220 pounds – a designated thumper. Bishop (11.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game) has posted 44 dunks on the season and lead the Big East in shooting (67.5 percent).

The offensive approach is similar to what Ohio saw from Toledo. The difference is Creighton is a much better defensive club (44th in defensive efficiency, 93.8 points allowed per 100 possessions).

“They do remind me of Toledo,” Boals said. “They have multiple threats out there, the way they’ll trap the ball screens. We’ll have to go back to some of the defensive principles we used then.”

Ohio counters with its own set of starters all in double figures, and its’ own gaudy offensive efficiency rating (112.7). Plus, the Bobcats will enter riding a tidal wave of confidence fueled by the euphoria of a first-round upset.

Forward Ben Vander Plas provided many of the big shots in the win over Virginia, but he said it’s clear why the Bobcats feel they can play with anyone right now.

Ohio guard Jason Preston looks to pass around Virginia’s Kihei Clark during a first-round game in the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 20 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The reason is Jason Preston. Preston nearly picked up a triple-double in his first career NCAA Tournament game as he tallied 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists against Virginia. Dealing with two defenders off most ball screens, Preston only took seven shots.

However, according to CBS Sports, he became the first player since 1998 to record at least 13 rebounds and eight assists in a NCAA Tournament game.

“I’m not going to lie. Any time we play a basketball game, doesn’t matter who it is, I think Jason Preston is the best player on the court,” Vander Plas said. “I’ve seen him do things that I haven’t seen anybody else do.”

Preston will be under pressure again versus Creighton, where he’ll be matched up with Zegarowski. Boals doesn’t believe that will affect Ohio’s junior. He’s risen to the level of competition before.

“I told him this is where stars are born, legacies are made,” Boals said Saturday. “He’s the heart and soul of our team. The world saw today who he is and what he’s able to do.”

Creighton won the only previous meeting between the teams, 57-55 back in 1962. This will be the first game against Ohio, or Jeff Boals, for McDermott in time with the BlueJays.

But the Bobcats aren’t looking to the past, even as they have a chance to make history. All that matters is what’s next, and what it takes to get there.

“We just have to go out and take it war (4-minute segment) by war, and do what we know got us here,” Roderick said.

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