Based on merit, Thursday’s NCAA tournament match is one the Ohio State men’s volleyball team shouldn’t have to play.

The two-time defending national champion is the fifth seed out of seven in the tournament, which expanded from six teams this year because the West Coast Conference split into two. It would stand to reason that the sixth and seventh seeds should be in a play-in round.

But because NCAA bracketing procedures value geography over seeding, Ohio State (23-5) must play seventh-seed King University (23-5) on Thursday at St. John Arena to earn a trip to California.

>> Video | Nicolas Szerszen says third title would be "dream come true"

Simply put, it’s because of money. It is cheaper for the NCAA to have King, which is located in Bristol, Tennessee, drive to Columbus than fly to Boston to face sixth-seed Harvard.

“Is it truly fair? No, it’s not,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “But it’s kind of the growing pains that men’s volleyball is going to have to go through as we get hopefully to an eight-team bracket and it becomes a moot point. We just have to make the best of it. We could complain until the cows come home, but it’s not going to get us any closer to playing good volleyball.”

Ohio State is emphasizing the silver lining to the situation. Much of the nucleus graduated from the Buckeyes’ national championship teams, so for many Ohio State players, this will be a chance to jump into NCAA waters at a friendly site.

It also will provide fans one last, unexpected opportunity to see OSU’s seniors, particularly Nicolas Szerszen, the Buckeyes’ all-time leader in points, kills and service aces.

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“I thought the final home match was the last time,” Szerszen said. “But it’s good. I’m glad to be at St. John and have one last chance (to play there). We’re going to try to make it count.”

The Buckeyes were a bit of a surprise NCAA champion in 2016 and then defended the title at St. John last year. With so many new players, the Buckeyes have endured some growing pains. They aren’t the favorite this time around.

“We’ve tried to not really talk about it,” Hanson said of a three-peat. “I don’t know that it’s fair to put the pressure of a three-peat on Jake Hanes or Aaron Samarin or Sanil Thomas. This is their first opportunity, so (we say) you need to go out and one-peat. It’s guys like Nic and (redshirt junior) Blake Leeson who need to three-peat. The other guys just need to go out and play.”

That’s the attitude they’re taking.

“We have five losses,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if people are really expecting us to do anything. I’m fine with that. I love taking the underdog role and being under the radar.”