PITTSBURGH – There are nearly 360 Division 1 men’s college basketball teams and only 68 of them can make the field, meaning that significantly more teams are going to miss the field than make the field and plenty of players will go through their entire careers without having the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
For Ohio State guard Jamari Wheeler, it looked like his opportunity was going to pass him by while he was at Penn State. The Nittany Lions had come close, but they never could quite cross the threshold.
A transfer to Ohio State changed all of that as the Buckeyes roared out to a quick start, beat then No. 1 Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and be right in the mix for a regular season Big Ten title until the wheels somewhat came off the bus.
While most Ohio State fans had a bad feeling as Ohio State’s name was announced to the field of 68 teams, there was nothing but excitement for the graduate transfer guard.
“When we first got selected, I don’t think I slept that night,” Wheeler said. “I was just so excited and ready to play, just like a dream come true, and I’m glad I’m here.”
The Buckeyes have a veteran team and there are few players that have not had a chance to experience the madness that is part of March and Wheeler, who is still a wise veteran on this team will lean on his teammates as the sport’s biggest tournament is underway.
“Just take it day by day, just learn from the guys that already been here and competed here,” Wheeler said. “Just go out there and do what I do best, like don’t overthink it, don’t overdo it, just go out there and have fun at the end of the day and see how many games we can win.”
It is a little bit different for someone like Joey Brunk, a player who has been to the tournament before, wearing a different uniform.
But just because Butler made the NCAA Tournament early in Brunk’s career doesn’t mean that he had a chance to contribute during his time with the Bulldogs. Brunk saw an extended run with Butler but did not play in the Big Dance and then a move to Indiana caused Brunk to miss the tourney once again.
He won’t miss it this time around.
“My first two years at Butler we went to the tournament and I didn’t play, but I was able to have a part of it,” Brunk said. “Obviously makes this weekend a little bit sweeter just thinking about the time and effort and how bad you wanted to have an opportunity to play in it.”
And then there is E.J. Liddell, who knows this is his last run in the NCAA Tournament. He has already walked for “Senior Day” despite having another year of eligibility in his pocket. The NBA talk is there, something that is fun to think about but far from front-and-center.
Now is the time to leave a legacy as the Buckeyes had a quick exit in 2021 and there was no tournament to be had in 2020.
“To leave my name in the Ohio State fans’ minds and just my legacy here is going to mean a lot, honestly,” Liddell said. “Got to go win some games first. Have to win some games. I love winning games. No matter how much I score or even if I don’t score and we win the game, I’m proud.”
Three different players, three different situations when it comes to tournament experience. So much of the NCAA Tournament is being able to contend with the enormity of it all, the win and advance mentality. The wins have been hard to come by down the stretch for the Buckeyes, so they are going to have to figure something out, especially going against a team in Loyola-Chicago that has celebrated much more NCAA Tournament success than Ohio State has in recent years and brings a veteran team to the table as well.
“I’ll share some of my experiences,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. This season marks a 7th trip to the NCAA tournament in his 11-year career as a head coach. “We’ll discuss it. I think there’s an experience element that’s different with obviously the Loyola team than what our team faces. So, we’ll talk about it. We won’t dwell on it too much, but we’ll talk about it, maybe try to give them a couple things to help kind of free their minds a little bit.”