South Dakota State (28-6) is a popular pick to upset Ohio State (24-8) in the first round of the West Region on Thursday at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho.
The 12th-seeded Jackrabbits made it into the 68-team NCAA field for the third consecutive year and fifth time in the past seven seasons after claiming the Summit League regular-season and tournament championships. They've won 19 of their last 20 games and are looking for their first NCAA Tournament win.
"It seems like in years past when you won the conference tournament that was considered a great season," South Dakota State standout forward Mike Daum said. "But we're kind of past that."
Meanwhile, the fifth-seeded Buckeyes exceeded all expectations under first-year coach Chris Holtmann by finishing in a tie for second in the Big Ten during the regular season. But they've lost three of their last five.
"They have more experience playing in this thing than we do," Holtmann said of South Dakota State, which has never won an NCAA game in its three tournament appearances. "When you have some guys who are experienced and been in it, that gives you an advantage."
The Jackrabbits can score, ranking sixth in Division I at 84.9 points per game. Their non-conference resume includes an early season win over Iowa and losses to Kansas and Wichita State.
South Dakota State is led by the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Daum, a two-time conference player of the year who's averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds. Daum, an inside-outside threat, is also shooting 46.2 percent from the field and coverted 42 percent of his 216 3-point attempts this season.
"A high-major coach told me Mike Daum is the closest thing to Larry Bird since Larry Bird," Holtmann said. "Talked to another NBA scout who said he's the best prospect he's seen. Not sure how many he's seen, but he said Daum is the best."
Ohio State has a standout of its own to match Daum. Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop, also a national player of the year candidate, averages 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds on a team with four players scoring in double figures.
"It's a pretty good draw," South Dakota State point guard Tevin King said. "They're a great team. We know that. But we're feeling good. Our guys have been stepping up. We know what it's gonna take to win."
South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger is not downplaying his team's chances after guiding the Jackrabbits to a school-record win total.
"You know when you get to that point you're going to play a really good team, and we are. But those 5/12 matchups -- most years that's a 50/50 game," he said, according to the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. "Often, two of those 12 seeds win. From that vantage point, it gives you some added confidence.
"We know Ohio State is a phenomenal team. But we're playing really well right now, too. We're a tough matchup ourselves."
The winner will draw a possible matchup with No. 4 seed Gonzaga, which defeated South Dakota State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and manhandled Ohio State by 27 points in November.
"Most all of our preparation will be on South Dakota State," said Holtmann, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. "You have to try and win that first one, and we have great respect for them. You look at the numbers, it's really impressive."
Bates-Diop knows the danger in dreaming of a potential rematch with Gonzaga, which opens with No. 13 seed UNC-Greensboro.
"You lose, you're done," he said. "You don't even get the chance to play that game, so we are just focused on who we're playing."
Holtmann revealed this week that coaches who watched the Buckeyes practice earlier in the season told him they'd do well to squeeze into the NIT. But here they are in the NCAAs with a chance to make an even bigger statement.
"We're an easy upset pick, I'm sure, and we're going to have plenty of people that are going to go in that direction," Holtmann said. "We've got a lot to prove. At the end of the day, we hopefully can go out and perform and play well."