Big Ten basketball — especially this season — can mess with any team’s confidence because of the conference’s competitiveness.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are no exception to difficulties and frustrations the conference can provide, having won their first two Big Ten contests before dropping five out of six.
Now, OSU (18-5, 5-5) has won back-to-back road games against top 20 opponents — a 59-58 win against then-No. 14 Wisconsin Feb. 1 followed by a 76-69 victory against No. 17 Iowa Tuesday — and the feelings around the team have been a bit on the lighter side.
“The mood is way better. I mean in the gym, we go to the weight room … the mood is better,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross said Friday. “In the locker room, everybody’s laughing, where like a week ago, you come in there and it’s sad in there. You can almost put on some gloomy music in there, it’s been real bad in there for us.”
The two wins against ranked opponents on the road, though, has gotten things back to where they should be, Ross said.
“I think winning — winning cures all,” Ross said. “We was down, we was at our lowest point this season when we lost those couple games, but I think right now, it’s looking good for us.”
While the team’s confidence might be on the upswing, its coach doesn’t want the team to head into a Saturday matchup with Purdue (14-9, 4-6) with the attitude that just because the Buckeyes are returning home, a win is guaranteed.
“The fact that you’ve won two games on the road and you’re coming home, I know in this league means absolutely nothing if you’re not ready to play at the level you need to play at,” coach Thad Matta said Friday. “There’s no rhyme or reason with why teams are winning right now. It’s just, ‘Hey, whoever plays best for that 40 minutes.’”
OSU was able to hold off the Boilermakers, 78-69, in West Lafayette, Ind., Dec. 31, but had its hands full with sophomore center A.J. Hammons, who scored 18 points and snatched 16 rebounds. Hammons also blocked five shots, doing his best to clog up the lane.
OSU junior center Amir Williams will likely shoulder the bulk of the responsibility of containing the 7-footer, but taking him out of the game is a team effort, Ross said.
“He clogs up the lane. So we’re going to have to find ways to spread him out, get him out of there,” Ross, who scored a game-high 25 points in the win against Purdue on New Year’s Eve, said. “He’s a real big dude. So we gotta work on getting him off the block, and we also gotta give Amir help down there.”
A big reason for the Buckeyes’ recent success could be the change in their starting lineup, as junior guard Shannon Scott has been replaced with junior forward Sam Thompson. Scott has come off the bench to average 10 points in the Buckeyes last two games, seeming to be more aggressive than before and give OSU another option offensively.
“I think I got my edge back a little bit. I know coming off the bench gotta bring a spark to the team, so I feel like now that’s my role,” Scott said Friday. “And if I’m able to do that by being aggressive, I gotta keep doing that every game.”
The Buckeyes have been able to finish off the two close victories on the road by making big plays down the stretch as well as hitting their free throws. That late game confidence for the Buckeyes was missing during their tough run of losses, Matta said.
“We’ve been right there in every game that we haven’t won and shots haven’t fell for us in the timely fashion that we needed them to,” Matta said. “I’ve always told our guys and I’m telling them now in late game situations: Be as confident as you possibly can. Take and make a great shot. We’re perfectly fine with it.”
Tipoff between the Boilermakers and Buckeyes is set for 6 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.