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Matta feeling pressure of Big Ten

Michael Parkman / Lantern photographer

There’s no question the Ohio State men’s basketball team is talented. With arguably the nation’s best group of freshmen joining four returning starters from a team that won the Big Ten championship a season ago, the Buckeyes certainly have the ability to contend with any team in the country.

However, after rolling through nonconference play, coach Thad Matta’s team is learning that it takes more than just talent to win in the Big Ten.

After scoring just four points in the first half and turning the ball over several times, freshman Jared Sullinger was frustrated and, due in large part to the Wolverine defense, appeared out of sync for the first time in his young career. As the game wore on, Sullinger eventually became more effective on both ends of the floor, but he fouled out with just more than a minute remaining.

OSU came out flat at Iowa before beating the unranked Hawkeyes by five on Jan. 4. At home Sunday against Minnesota, the Buckeyes’ inconsistency showed again.

After taking an 18-point lead midway through the second half, fouls and missed free throws allowed the Gophers back into the game. Were it not for a blocked shot as time expired to preserve the win, the Buckeyes might have been looking at overtime.

But the bottom line in those three games, as was the bottom line in Wednesday’s 68-64 win at Michigan, is that the Buckeyes aren’t losing basketball games. Although Matta realizes his team hasn’t played perfectly, he’s not complaining about the results.

“I keep telling these guys, ‘You’ve got to continue to learn through winning,'” Matta said after Sunday’s win over Minnesota. “I’m not one of those guys that believes we have to teach through losing. I’d rather the other.”

So far, the coach has gotten his wish. Despite not always playing their best basketball, the Buckeyes continue to find ways to win games. Perhaps more important, however, is the valuable experience that several OSU freshmen, Sullinger in particular, are gaining as they get their first taste of Big Ten basketball.

So although Matta admits that the Buckeyes’ inconsistency has been noticeable on several occasions throughout the year, as long as his team keeps winning, he won’t be overly concerned.

As he looks at what lies ahead for his team, the coach prefers to focus on the positive, but knows that in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten, there are plenty of tough games remaining.

“I think that we’ve played some very good basketball in stretches,” Matta said Tuesday before the Buckeyes traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich. “It’s conference play. You’re the No. 2 team in the country, and the stakes are a little bit higher right now.”

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