Ohio State isn’t going to have a hard time getting motivated for a game Thursday night against Gonzaga in Portland, Oregon.
A showdown against a Bulldogs program that has remained among the nation’s elite for more than a decade, combined with the venue of a prestigious tournament, essentially assures that much from the Buckeyes.
Showing up for big early-season nonconference games hasn’t really been an issue for the Buckeyes in recent years, either, even as the program slipped toward the abyss. Two years ago, Ohio State knocked off No. 4 Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. Last season, the Buckeyes gave No. 2 UCLA a run in the event and nearly knocked off No. 7 Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
On those nights, the Buckeyes’ effort was there. But then there were nights such as Dec. 6, 2016, when Florida Atlantic came to Value City Arena and won in double overtime. Or Nov. 20, 2015, when Texas-Arlington handed the Buckeyes their first home loss to a midmajor in two decades. Or their five losses by a combined eight points last season.
Throughout, forward Jae’Sean Tate has had the big picture in mind, thinking how each loss added up to death by paper cuts for NCAA Tournament hopes and, ultimately, coach Thad Matta’s job. It’s why now, as a senior, Tate in particular seems to have embraced a favorite mantra of new coach Chris Holtmann.
“We just can’t overlook so many things,” Tate said Tuesday before the Buckeyes flew to Portland for the PK80 Invitational.
“There’s been games over the years that we know we should’ve won (that the Buckeyes didn't) just because our focus wasn’t there that night or they wanted it more. This year, we can’t afford that to happen. We can’t. That’s why I’m taking it one day at a time, one game at a time, one practice at a time, focusing on that task at hand and hoping to string them along.”
It’s the oldest cliché in sports. During a 15-minute interview session, Tate repeated some version of it five more times.
Ohio State has plenty to worry about with Gonzaga, which lost last year’s NCAA final to North Carolina and will test the Buckeyes far more than their first four opponents have.
In addition, two more high-level games await Ohio State in the 16-team tournament, with the opponents to be determined. The Buckeyes are in an eight-team bracket that includes Florida, Stanford and top-ranked Duke.
That makes a more myopic view of the weekend not only reasonable for Ohio State but also, perhaps, the only way to deal with the challenge. Trying to instill that viewpoint was something that Holtmann said he quickly recognized as a key directive, and it remains a work in progress.
“That can be overwhelming when you have this idea in front of you all the time, because (Tate) cares about this program at a really high level,” Holtmann said. “I think the reality is that really good stuff happens if you can somehow pare it down to: 'Can I get better in my role today? And if I can do that enough days, then perhaps good stuff will happen down the road.'”
It might be true even when that road takes you clear across the country.
“When you play the biggest college basketball teams, you have to show up,” Tate said. “In the past, we’ve been excited about just the big games and overlooked the smaller games. At the end of the day, it’s five-on-five on the court, and the team that plays the hardest and wants it more is going to win.”