To a man, they know the odds favor Ohio State, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. No team seeded No. 16 has ever won a game, and no one expects the Roadrunners to be the first. Their prospects are as daunting as finishing ahead of Usain Bolt in a footrace.
They might have to be perfect.
“I wouldn’t say perfect,” senior guard Devin Gibson said. “But it’s going to take a very, very good game for us — maybe a few mistakes by Ohio State. But if we compete and the ball falls our way, you never know what can happen.”
Indeed, anything can happen, though it would be close to impossible to envision a scenario where the Roadrunners (20-13) will win. They are playing in Quicken Loans Arena, a place that might as well be the home floor for the Buckeyes. Their legion of faithful will pack The Q, painting it in scarlet and gray and shaking the place to its foundation.
Any orange inside the joint won’t represent the Roadrunners and their colors. Syracuse is in the same regional, and all the orange will belong to its fans.
No fans, no inside muscle to counter OSU freshman star Jared Sullinger and minimal NCAA experience, Gibson & Co. will be hard-put to do anything more than enjoy the March Madness experience. It is, as Thompson put it, an historic moment for a Southland Conference program in its first trip to the tournament.
“We understand that Ohio State is a very powerful and very good basketball team,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to be an exciting day for our program, and we look forward to the adventure.”
Thompson might be right. The adventure should end here, however. His Roadrunners will not be facing Alabama State, the program they knocked off in the "First Four" Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
Since that victory, their lives have ridden a whirlwind. They rode a bus four hours from Dayton to Cleveland, got into their hotel early in the morning and took the floor for a shoot-around with little fanfare. The presence of the Buckeyes lorded over everything.
Ask Thompson’s players, and they say it isn’t Ohio State (32-2) that worries them; no, it is themselves. They must keep their focus, follow their coach’s game plan and not let the pressure of the NCAA spotlight overwhelm them.
“We’re the underdogs,” said 6-foot-8 Jeromie Hill, a reed-thin forward. “We have nothing to lose. We have to go out there and execute a game plan and play to the best of our ability. Hopefully at the end of 40 minutes, we’re in the game. Anything can happen from there.”
Optimism can be heady stuff. It can carry a team farther than others might imagine. But optimism must be real; it can’t be manufactured to fit the circumstances. And maybe it is manufactured with these Roadrunners, who know that history isn’t on their side: No. 1s, 105; No. 16s, 0.
The Roadrunners say they’ll ignore that history, perhaps defy it. That’s all anybody can ask of them, really.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Melvin Johnson III, a sophomore guard. “We’re gonna have to work hard and compete, and we can’t go out there scared. We have to play to the best of our abilities.”
Yet that’s the damnable part of it. For even if the Roadrunners play to the “best of their abilities,” will it be good enough to upset the Buckeyes?