Though the Ohio State men’s basketball team took down No. 12 Purdue, 87-64, at home Tuesday, it’s just the beginning of a grueling stretch for the 21-0 Buckeyes: Five of OSU’s next seven games are against ranked teams, and all seven feature opponents with winning records.

Before conference play began, coach Thad Matta told his team about the importance of Big Ten play.

“I told them in late December that you have 18 battles here and the war’s decided in March,” Matta said in a press conference Friday. “We’ve got to continue to strive and play better basketball.”

Matta’s squad will also play in three of the Big Ten’s most intimidating road environments: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue.

Senior guard Jon Diebler stressed the importance of being tough on the road, especially early in games.

“The little mistakes that you make can turn into big plays for the other team,” Diebler said Friday. “That’s something that the veteran guys have to lead, by example. We have to get off to a good start.”

OSU features five freshmen, three of whom — forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas and point guard Aaron Craft — play more than 15 minutes per game.

Fifth-year senior guard David Lighty said the team’s veterans didn’t try to change the younger players’ focus by telling them about the tough road ahead.

“We just want to continue what we’ve been doing and try not to change anything up and put added pressure on anyone,” Lighty said Friday.

Matta applauded how his experienced players have brought the freshmen along.

“You look at great teams in college basketball, and they’ve got a senior-laden team, a strong veteran core,” Matta said. “Hats off to our core returning players. They’ve done a great job of being mentors and leaders for (the younger players).”

Before beating Illinois, the Buckeyes began Big Ten play by beating five teams in the lower half of the conference standings.

Diebler said he doesn’t take those wins lightly.

“The Big Ten’s a great conference and there’s no easy games, especially on the road,” he said. “We’re proud of the fact that we won three games on the road to start out the conference.”

The Big Ten is the second-best conference in the nation, behind the Big East, according to the RPI rankings. Iowa is the only team in the conference with a winning percentage below .500.

Lighty said OSU has been picking up momentum after a slow start to conference play.

“On the defensive end, I say we’ve slowed down a little bit starting the Big Ten season off,” he said. “We’re starting to pick it back up, doing the little things, hedging screens, (switching on defense), communicating.”

Despite the team’s apparent defensive struggles, Matta said it has made strides since the end of non-conference play.

“The bigger issue is that we’ve got great teams in this league,” Matta said. “At the time of Florida and Florida State, with who we were as a basketball team, those were tremendous tests. We’re definitely better since then.”

OSU played Florida and Florida State in November.

The Buckeyes are fifth in the RPI rankings. After going through the meat of its Big Ten schedule, though, OSU might see this figure rise.

“It will be a good test for us,” Lighty said. “We know we have the potential to be great.”

The Buckeyes will travel to Evanston, Ill., to play Northwestern at 6 p.m. Saturday.