With just four regular season games remaining before tournament play takes over the college basketball landscape, the Ohio State men’s basketball team is limping back to Columbus.
Having played eight of its last 12 games on the road, the Buckeyes have lost three of their last five games including back-to-back losses to Michigan and Michigan State. The good news for OSU is that three of its last four games are set to be played at the Schottenstein Center, with the last road game coming against Penn State next Wednesday.
OSU coach Thad Matta said he knew months ago that the current stretch of road games could make or break the Buckeyes’ season.
“I knew in July when the Big Ten schedule came out, I said, ‘My God, coming out of Ann Arbor if our heads are above water, and we’ve got a decent mojo about us, we’ve got a shot,’” Matta said Wednesday. “The biggest thing that I’m at right now is, ‘Hey guys, look, we’re OK. We know what we’ve gotta do, we know how we’ve gotta do it, now let’s walk out on the court and get the job done.’”
Doing just that will be key if the Buckeyes want to make their seventh straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
OSU, which has slipped to a No. 8 seed in ESPN’s most recent bracket projections, has not been seeded that low since the 2009 tournament when the Buckeyes fell to No. 9 seed Siena in double overtime.
That team, which lost in Dayton, boasted just one senior (a walk-on) and had little NCAA Tournament experience.
Despite that, Matta said he doesn’t believe he has to do anything extra to motivate or educate his current freshman-laden roster about the big dance.
“Times have changed. I remember, I don’t know if it was ‘08, I had a team meeting one time and said, ‘How many of you freshmen know how to get in the NCAA tournament?’ They didn’t know,” Matta said. “Now, that’s been seven years ago and everybody knows. I like where they (the current freshmen) are in terms of how they’re playing and how they are getting better. I would hope the four seniors that have been here would be telling them those things. I am sure they know that, I don’t like to bring it up.”
One of those seniors, forward Sam Thompson, has been as far as the Final Four in the tournament.
Thompson, who played 12 minutes in a 64-62 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2012 semifinal as a freshman, said getting back to the NCAA Tournament remains in OSU’s sights.
“Obviously the end goal is to make the NCAA Tournament. For the seniors that have been deep in the tournament, we know that there is no better feeling,” Thompson said. “For the young guys, they all came here for an opportunity to play in the tournament. We know that we have some work to do, as far as our résumé, but our goal is to get better, our goal is to play our best basketball. We know if we do that, everything else will work itself out.”
The Buckeyes are getting set to try and right the ship Thursday against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who have dropped their last five games.
Despite the Cornhuskers’ poor form, Thompson said he expects a motivated and fired-up squad coming in from Lincoln, Neb.
The Cornhuskers might have extra motivation coming from the fact that coach Tim Miles revoked the team’s access to their locker room after a 74-46 loss at home to the Iowa Hawkeyes on Sunday.
“I didn’t hear anything about it until coach Matta told us when he was sort of setting the stage,” Thompson said of Nebraska’s lockout. “We know they are going to come in and play hard. I guess their locker room is on the line now. We know they are going to come in and give us their best shot. We know that we have to be ready to play. Our mindset doesn’t really change.”
The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers are set to tip off at the Schottenstein Center at 7 p.m.