The undefeated, Ohio State men's basketball team is battling the perception that their schedule isn't challenging enough. Sound familiar?
Unlike with the football team, the emerging narrative will likely be squashed as quickly as the Buckeyes enter Big Ten play. The conference is a powerhouse in this sport and hasn't been dragged down over the last six years by the quality of its members or the basketball media. In five of the last six seasons, the conference's RPI ranking has been among the top two.
That will undoubtedly help Ohio State in the eyes of the selection committee come March, but the current task is making the best out of a weak non-conference slate. Head coach Thad Matta is concerned with how his teams approach games where there's a large talent gap between OSU and their opponent.
"Personally, it’s something I’ve always been consumed with; doing the best I could to make sure guys’ minds are where they need to be leading into the game," Matta said. "You hope, with a senior group, they know that one night or one half of not coming ready to play can be detrimental to you."
The Buckeyes have nine upperclassmen on the roster, with two seniors and three juniors in the starting. Junior forward Sam Thompson comes off the bench and believes this year's team is capable of handling any difficulties, particularly when the level of competition rises.
"We have guys who have been in this program for a number of years, we’ve been to the Final Four, we’ve had some bad losses," Thompson said. "We’re conditioned to handle adversity well. Obviously it may change when we actually face some, but I think we have the opportunity to handle it well.”
They will take on Notre Dame in New York, Saturday, and return home to face Louisiana-Monroe, Dec. 27. Those are the final two non-conference games, as OSU travels to Purdue, Dec. 31. The Big Ten currently has three of the top-five ranked teams in the AP Poll. Including Iowa, the conference has four in the top 25. Those are the only ranked teams on Ohio State's schedule.
According to KenPom.com, their current strength of schedule is No. 252 in the nation. That will certainly improve over the next three months, but the Buckeyes hope the early schedule has prepared them for making the leap to Big Ten.
"We’ve had  games to build our mindset so that we can come out and approach every game the same way," Thompson said. "Nothing will change in the Big Ten, the competition may get a little better, teams might know each other a little more, but we still want to come out an execute for 40 minutes on both sides of the ball."
That is the ideal way to handle weaker competition, but OSU has displayed some sluggishness at the outset of few of their games. For example, Delaware opened up a 9-3 lead at The Schott, Wednesday. With no student section and in an arena showcasing its usual lack of zip, it's not surprising when the Buckeyes aren't consistently energetic throughout.
Perhaps finding a consistent rhythm is the greatest amount of adversity they've faced so far. Matta will argue on behalf of the Marquette game, Ohio State's only true road opponent in non-conference play.
It was an ugly first half in Milwaukee, as both teams shot below 27 percent from the field. Somehow, the Golden Eagles hit fewer shots in the second half and the Buckeyes pulled away with a 52-35 victory. Marquette is now 7-4, but that hasn't made Matta reconsider the challenges that the matchup posed.
|TEam (AP Rank)||KenPom Non-Conf. SOS Rank|
|Ohio State (3)||252|
|Michigan State (5)||194|
"When we pulled up that morning at 9:30 and there was 8,000 people stretched around the building, I knew we were walking into a hornet’s nest," he said. "I thought our guys handled that very well, especially through the defensive end, and, kind of, took the crowd out of it."
His team can couple that experience with superior tests from the last two years, such as at Duke, Kansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan State, among others.
"You hope," Matta said, "with what this team’s been through in terms of the environments we’ve seen on the road, they’ll block out what they need to block out."