Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
The NCAA Tournament is about four months away, but the Ohio State men’s basketball team will get to experience a postseason-like environment this weekend in Connecticut.
OSU is scheduled to play in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic Saturday and Sunday in Uncasville, Conn. The No. 4-ranked Buckeyes (1-0) take on Rhode Island (0-2) Saturday, and depending on the outcome of the game, will play the winner of the Seton Hall (2-0) – Washington (1-1) contest Sunday.
It’s only November, but OSU coach Thad Matta said playing two games in two days will help prepare OSU for March.
“It’s more of a Big Ten tournament, NCAA Tournament type feel,” Matta said. “I think doing this early, the two games in two days, will tell us quite a bit about our team. You play the first day, win or lose, you’ve got to go back and prepare for your next opponent.”
Coming off a Final Four appearance and a third consecutive Big Ten regular season championship , the Buckeyes are still trying to figure out what type of team they are. After this weekend, they should be further along in that process.
“Most of the time when you’re playing on the road, you have to find different ways to win. You have to do extra stuff,” said junior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. “It’s actually a little harder to win out on the road. That’s what helps us build more as a team.”
Smith Jr., who scored 18 points in OSU’s 82-60 season-opening win against Albany Nov. 11, said the Buckeyes are in the beginning stage of coming together as a cohesive unit.
They still have plenty to work on and get better at, but OSU’s main concern right now might be rebounding.
OSU seems to have its scoring down with Smith Jr., junior forward Deshaun Thomas and junior guard Aaron Craft all dropping more than 18 points in the victory against Albany.
On the other end of the floor, redshirt senior forward Evan Ravenel said OSU has the potential to be the “best defensive team in the country.”
Rebounding wise, there is still a lot to be done. OSU had even rebounding margins against Albany and Walsh University, its NCAA Division II exhibition-game opponent.
“We got to find a way to rebound the ball. We can’t just depend on one person to grab 10 to 15 rebounds. We have to gang-rebound, because that’s just the team we are,” Ravenel said.
OSU lost one of the nation’s best rebounders from last season in former forward Jared Sullinger, who now plays for the Boston Celtics. Sullinger averaged almost 10 rebounds per game in his two seasons with the Buckeyes.
Ravenel, along with sophomore centers Amir Williams and Trey McDonald, is trying to fill in for a former two-time All-American in Sullinger.
In order for the Buckeyes to be successful on the glass, they need to be hungrier, Ravenel said.
“Nobody wants to go against an overly-aggressive guy for 40 minutes in a basketball game,” he said.
While OSU is yet to face a Big Ten-caliber team after one regular season game, an exhibition game, and a canceled Carrier Classic contest against Marquette, the team should face some bigger teams this weekend.
Rhode Island’s leading rebounders are 6-foot-7 senior Nikola Malesevic and 6-foot-8 freshman Mike Aaman. Washington, which suffered a 63-62 Tuesday loss to the same Albany team that OSU handled easily, has several lengthy forwards that could give the Buckeyes trouble. Seton Hall has five players on its roster 6-foot-9 or taller.
Matta said he is looking forward to the challenges this weekend will pose for his Buckeyes.
But more than anything, the OSU coach said he is excited to get out on the road and actually play a game after the Buckeyes’ season opener scheduled aboard an aircraft carrier was canceled due to condensation.
“We’ve got the travel part down. We’ve got all the way to tip-off – warm-ups, everything on an away court. Now we’ve just got to play a game,” Matta said.
OSU and Rhode Island are set to tip off 5 p.m. Saturday night on ESPN3 at Mohegan Sun Arena. With a win, OSU would advance to Sunday’s championship game, which is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.