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Bucks face defending champs on grandest stage

The last time the Ohio State men’s basketball team played in Madison Square Garden, the Buckeyes left New York City as the 2008 postseason NIT champions.

Tonight, they return to the “Mecca of Basketball” to play defending champion North Carolina in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic.

Much like last year, the Buckeyes are faced with an early opportunity to make waves in a non-conference game. Last season, they played No. 7 Notre Dame in Indianapolis. On the shoulders of Evan Turner’s career-high 28 points, the Buckeyes won 67-62, propelling themselves into the Top 25 for the first time in more than a year.

To get a win over such a highly ranked team early in the year gave the Buckeyes a lot of confidence moving forward, junior Jon Diebler said. However, the No. 6 Tar Heels will most likely prove to be a tougher test.

“They’ve got tremendous size and they do a great job of getting the ball inside,” coach Thad Matta said. “Defensively, their pressure, they really try to get up and disrupt what you’re doing.”

Matta also praised Carolina’s ability to score in transition, something he called “the staple of their program.” He said his goal is to get them out of their comfort zone.

“In some ways it’s going to come down to the battle of wills,” Matta said. “Who forces the other guy to play the way they want them to play.”

Though North Carolina returns only two starters, much of its team saw significant time in last year’s championship season. They have seen that Matta said cannot be overlooked.

“Sitting on the bench or playing 12 minutes a game and winning the national championship while going against the guys they went against on a daily basis, you can’t put a price on that,” Matta said. “Those guys have been there.”

Fortunately for OSU, the Buckeyes have experience of their own — an experience that was absent in 2007 when the Buckeyes last played the Tar Heels. The 66-55 loss in Columbus was the first time many of the OSU players had played in a game of that magnitude, but Diebler said his team now knows what is at stake.

“This is on the national stage at the greatest venue,” Diebler said. “We feel that this is just something we can’t let pass because we know we’re playing the national champions. They’re the national champions until someone takes it away from them.”

The Buckeyes take on the Tar Heels tonight at 9:30 p.m. The winner of the game faces the winner of Syracuse and No. 13 California.

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