Jimmy Patsos prepared his Loyola University basketball team for this year's NCAA tournament long before the Greyhounds earned the school's first automatic bid in 18 years last week. The planning began in December, when Loyola played road games at St. Bonaventure and Kentucky in less than four days.
Though the Greyhounds lost both — by 10 to a Bonnies team that also qualified for this year's tournament by winning the Atlantic 10 and by 24 to the-then No.3 Wildcats, who enter the NCAA tournament as the overall top seed — Patsos believes the experience his team had on the road in upstate New York and at fabled Rupp Arena will serve the Greyhounds well this week.
Loyola (24-8), which qualified for the tournament by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament over Fairfield last Monday night in Springfield, Mass., is scheduled to play Ohio State (27-7) Thursday at CONSOL Energy Arena in Pittsburgh.
The No. 7 Buckeyes, who shared the Big Ten regular-season title, are seeded second in the East after being ranked in the Top 10 the entire season and spending the first half of the season either second or third. Loyola is the No. 15 seed.
"The way I look at it is, we have Ohio State and if we win, we play the winner of Gonzaga-West Virginia," Patsos said at Reitz Arena on Sunday night after the matchups were announced on national television. "I told our team when we played St. Bonaventure and Kentucky, 'What we're doing here fellas is getting ready for the NCAA [tournament].' I think it gives us an advantage. I hope it does."
The Greyhounds came out slow against St. Bonaventure, but trailed by only six points with a little more than four minutes left. Against Kentucky, Loyola was down six at halftime before things got out of hand after junior guard Bobby Olson fouled out with about 15 minutes left in the game. Junior forward Erik Etherly said that Loyola learned from those experiences, especially against the Wildcats.
"It allowed us to see where we were at that period of time and how much work we had to do to get to where we are now," Etherly said Sunday night. "Being close at halftime instilled a lot of confidence in us that we can hang in there with anybody. You've got to look at a game like that because they're the overall No. 1 seed. We've got to draw on that experience. We didn't finish that game as well as we wanted to. "
Patsos said that playing against a St. Bonaventure team that "was more physical than Kentucky" and then facing the Wildcats and their lineup of future NBA lottery picks — including center Anthony Davis, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft — should at least have the Greyhounds less in awe of the Buckeyes and their star sophomore, Jared Sullinger.
Senior center Shane Walker, who guarded Davis and will likely start out against Sullinger, said that he has watched Ohio State on television many times this season "and it will be good to go out and compete against them." Though Davis and Sullinger are completely different players — with the Ohio State center stronger and more of an offensive star — Walker said that playing one should help him get ready for the other.
"Obviously I take pride in my defense, so it's going to be one of the biggest challenges of the year or ever in my life," said Walker, who started his career at Maryland.
The next few days will be spent watching tape of the Buckeyes. Loyola assistant G.G. Smith said that he plans to call his father, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, to get a scouting report. Patsos admits that Ohio State will be able to counter that familiarity because Dave Dickerson, who served with Patsos under Gary Williams at Maryland, will quickly see that the Greyhounds run the same flex offense and other similar offensive and defensive sets as the Terps did when he and Patsos were there.
Patsos is also a realist.
"Ohio State has great players, they have better players than we do and Thad Matta is a better coach than me," Patsos said. "Are we expected to win that game? No. Do we have a chance to win that game? Very little."
But that doesn't mean Patsos doesn't give his team a chance of becoming the fifth No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed since the field was expanded in 1985. On that list is Coppin State, which beat South Carolina in 1997. Here's a bit of karmic irony — the game was played in Pittsburgh.
Patsos recalled a phone call he received Sunday afternoon from a friend and Loyola fan.
It came from Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, the official outfitter of the Greyhounds.
"Kevin Plank told me today, 'Everyone said I had no chance against Nike. They said, 'What are you crazy?' Keep that in the back of your mind,'" Patsos said.
Notes: Loyola athletic director Jim Paquette said that the NCAA sells each school 500 tickets, including those for players and their families, as well as for university staff. Those interested in buying tickets can put in an application at the university ticket office, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Monday. The time for Thursday's game will be set Monday.