When you’re the head coach of a Division I basketball program, the month of December is arguably the biggest of the year for your team.
A month break from classes gives coaches a stretch where it’s just you, your team and basketball as you get ready for the grind of the conference season.
“Coach (Thad) Matta always says teams get better over break, or they get worse. They never stay the same,” junior forward Sam Thompson said Tuesday. “We want to come in every day and focus on getting better so that we can be the best team that we can be come the start of next year.”
“I like this whole month … basically it’s been a great month of just basketball, eating (and) sleeping,” freshman forward Marc Loving said Tuesday.
The No. 3 Buckeyes (10-0, 0-0) have just three games remaining until a New Year’s Eve date with Purdue to open Big Ten play. OSU has hardly been challenged yet this season, with its closest victory being a 10-point win against Ohio University Nov. 12.
OSU’s only win against a ranked opponent was a 52-35 drubbing of then-No. 17 Marquette. The Golden Eagles are no longer ranked in the Top 25.
That game was also the only one that was away from the friendly confines of the Schottenstein Center, something that Matta said he hopes won’t bother his team much once conference play kicks off thanks to having two senior and five junior scholarship players.
“You hope with what this team has been through in terms of the environments we’ve seen on the road (in prior years) that they’ll be able to block out what they need to block out and ride the wave that we want to ride on,” Matta said Tuesday.
Not playing against the nation’s elite before conference play isn’t really on the OSU coach’s mind, though, who instead focuses on making sure his team is ready for that next game regardless of who it’s playing.
“It’s always a concern,” Matta said of trying to be sure his team is up for each game it plays. “I think that’s something that personally I’ve always been consumed with. Do the best that I could to make sure guys’ minds are where they need to be leading into the game as well as the last time we break the huddle in the locker room before we go out, that they’re thinking the right thoughts.”
Although OSU’s average margin of victory so far this year is 21.6 points per game, Matta said he is still a bit unsure of what exactly he has with this year’s team.
“I think that’s one of the hardest parts of coaching. There’s so many ups and downs throughout the course of a season,” Matta said. “I like this team. I like the fact that we’re getting better … Do we still have a long way to go? Yeah, but I think everybody does. I’ve asked myself that question about 100 times a day. When do I think we’d hit our stride? And I don’t know the answer (yet).”
That question may not get answered until Big Ten play starts, Matta said — three out of the nation’s top five are in the Big Ten.
“We’ve had great teams (at OSU) play well and get beat, because I think the competition and the rigors of the Big Ten coming up here in a couple weeks can do that to you,” Matta said. “I don’t know — I like our balance, I like it to this point, today, it could change tomorrow, where our focus is in terms of what’s important to this team.”
The increased amount of competition once Big Ten play gets under way has been noticed in the locker room among the players, Thompson said, but their ultimate goal remains the same.
“We’ve had 10 games now, I think, to build our mindset so that we can come out and approach every game the same way, and nothing will change with the Big Ten,” Thompson said. “Competition may get a little bit better, teams may know each other a little bit more, but we still want to come out and execute for 40 minutes on both sides of the ball.”
Although OSU has not really faced adversity as far as losing games goes so far this season, it is out to keep the game-by-game approach present Wednesday when it tips off against Delaware (5-5, 0-0) 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
“The one game at a time approach is something that we’ve always attempted to address and get those guys to understand that,” Matta said. “You hope that with a senior group, you know that hey, one night or one half of not coming ready to play can be detrimental to you.”