NCAA Tournament

Ivo Baltic’s journey reaches the NCAA Tournament

Ivo Baltic walked along the sideline on Thursday afternoon, flipping a backpack over his No. 23 Ohio practice jersey. He was heading toward the tunnel, leaving the Edward Jones Dome behind him. But first, he stopped to sign a few autographs.

What a difference three years makes.

In March 2009, Baltic was a senior at Park Hill South, still trying to figure out where he wanted to play college basketball. On Thursday, Baltic was sitting in front of a pack of cameras in the Ohio locker room, in the middle of one of the NCAA Tournament’s biggest Cinderella stories.

No. 13 seed Ohio will take on top-seeded North Carolina at 6:47 Friday night in the first Midwest Regional semifinal at the Edward Jones Dome. A victory would clinch the Bobcats’ first trip to the Elite Eight since the tournament expanded to 64 teams — and just their second ever.

“That’s pretty much what you dream about as a little kid,” Baltic said. “Playing out in the driveway and stuff, that’s what you think about.”

Baltic, a 6-foot-8 junior, is averaging 8.9 points and 5.0 rebounds while playing 27.3 minutes per game. He finished with 10 points in an upset over fourth-seeded Michigan in the Bobcats’ opening game. But numbers only tell part of Baltic’s story.

Born in Bosnia in 1991, Baltic’s family took refuge in Germany as war splintered the region in the early 1990s. Baltic was too young to remember, but he can still hear the stories from his mother, Aziza, and father, Alojz — stories about bombings on the streets and cities gripped by violence.

“They just talked about how hard the lifestyle was over there and not being able to find a job,” Baltic said. “And not knowing what was gonna happen tomorrow.”

The family eventually made its way to Kansas City in search of a better life. When Baltic arrived in the Northland, the most basic English phrases were a challenge. But basketball — he grew up idolizing Michael Jordan — became his entry point into American culture. He won Class 5 all-state honors as a senior at Park Hill South, averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds per game and was a DiRenna Award finalist.

Next up is North Carolina, the school that gave him his intro to college basketball. You see, Baltic never watched much college basketball growing up. Instead, he survived on Michael Jordan highlight films. One of those highlights showed Jordan making the game-winning jumper in the final minute of North Carolina’s victory over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA championship game.

“I just watched a whole lot of Michael Jordan stuff,” Baltic said, “And that’s the first college clip I ever saw.”