On Thursday afternoon, Ohio State will play an out-of-conference team for the first time since Dec. 27. It’s a welcome sight for the Buckeyes. For a dozen weeks, life in the Big Ten meant playing gladiators on a basketball court.
Now comes a respite for a team that’s been bloodied, bruised and battered. After all, they were 15-0 during the non-league schedule – and three of those teams will play in the NCAA Tournament.
A possible second-round matchup against Syracuse would pit the Buckeyes against a roster laden with future NBA players. But games in the tournament won’t impersonate Big Ten battles against the likes of Michigan and Michigan State, where pro scouts can outnumber media.
“This conference is the toughest conference you’re going to play in,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “Honestly, I’m looking forward to the NCAA Tournament. I’m excited to beat up on some other teams outside the conference. We’ve played some of the top teams in the country already, so I think that is going to prepare us a lot for the NCAA Tournament.”
Past history suggests Smith is correct. Throughout the Big Ten’s rise to prominence, coaches and players readily reference the league’s depth and toughness as an ingredient in deep tournament runs. Since 2005 – Thad Matta’s first year at Ohio State – the conference has had seven Final Four participants with four losing in the national championship game.
Still, none have won the title since Michigan State in 2000.
“I honestly don’t know [why],” Matta said. “It’s interesting.”
“I’m excited to beat up on some other teams outside the conference. We’ve played some of the top teams in the country already, so I think that is going to prepare us a lot for the NCAA Tournament.”– Lenzelle Smith Jr.
The Buckeyes probably won’t end that streak, at least not this season. But a team that lost consecutive games to Penn State and Indiana displayed grit and glimpses of grandeur over the past week not seen in recent months.
Scoring points has been LaQuinton Ross’s M.O. from the outset of the season, but the constant production and ability to fill the hoop at the basket is a new formula. He’s averaging more than 20 points the past six games, joining a long list of Buckeyes who’ve risen to the occasion during the year’s third month.
“It’s tournament time.” Ross said. “I know this team needs me to score, so I’ve just been aggressive and tried to drive more. I know when I get to the rack, I will either finish or draw a foul.”
Another blip is the bench’s recent surge. Going forward, Amedeo Della Valle and Shannon Scott aren’t likely to consistent forces in the postgame box score. Scott could find his value in guarding former teammate Jordan Sibert, whose Dayton’s leading scorer.
Motivation is of little concern. The consequences from a slow start are clear. But for a team that lacks any real consistency and identity, will a fiery pep talk or list of concerns really matter?
“We are who we are,” Matta said. “Can we be a little bit better when we take the court on Thursday or Friday? Yeah, I think we can. But this team is who it is.”
Who exactly is it? A team that looks in a number of directions for a second scorer, a group that continually struggles at the free throw line – a major warning sign at this time of year – and a team that remains an enigma.
There’s a reason fans become frustrated. There’s potential, but a lack of stability.
“We’ve got to be ready to play against anyone,” Scott said. “If we don’t play well in our first game, we’re going to lose and get knocked out. It’s win or go home now.”
Thanks to one of the top defensive units in the country, a deep run is a possibility. Not probable, but conceivable. So too is an early exit. Matta’s managed to stay even keeled throughout the proceedings because he sees a group of “great kids” that make up one of the best practice teams he’s ever coached.
“We compete like crazy,” Matta said.
To say or believe anything else would be foolish. They’ve displayed their resilience gene on multiple occasions. Unexplainable events frame the month of March.
“In our heart, we’re a tough basketball team. We’re a team that’s not going to give up,” junior forward Sam Thompson said.
Of all the inconsistencies plaguing Ohio State, the one constant remains its will to reach the finish line. In the postseason, toughness can trump talent.