When the Ohio State men’s basketball team arrived at practice on Thursday, the team was trying to focus on Saturday’s game against the University of Connecticut Huskies (4-4) following a terribly disappointing 79-77 overtime loss to Florida Atlantic (3-5) on Tuesday.
OSU had two practice sessions on Reading Day, the first of which didn’t go well. After coach Thad Matta ended practice, senior forward Marc Loving, without Matta knowing, gathered the team and talked about what needed to change on the court. As the only senior on the team, Loving is one of the few four-year players under Matta that hasn’t won a conference championship or any meaningful game in the NCAA tournament.
When the team came back for the second practice, Loving said he could see a lot more energy and camaraderie in the gym.
“I love where Marc Loving’s mind is right now,” Matta said. “I think the light has flipped on in his mind in terms of how he’s playing and what he has to do to help this basketball team. I think he’s assumed a ‘take command’ type of attitude with this team.”
Last season, it was games like Tuesday’s that kept OSU out of the NCAA tournament. Two early season losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech hurt the Buckeyes tremendously as can the loss to the Owls. Another loss to a UConn team, who has losses to low mid-majors Wagner University and Northeastern University, would be another hurdle for the Buckeyes to jump over if they want to make the tournament come March.
“This game was already big enough seeing how we lost last year to UConn,” Loving said. “We just don’t want to have recurring events like we had last season, stringing multiple losses together.”
Huskies’ coach Kevin Ollie got the best of the Buckeyes last season, winning 75-55 in Storrs, Connecticut. At the time, OSU fell to 4-5, and although Matta’s team is still sitting at 7-2, the themes of humdrum play and a lack of urgency have been rearing their heads in the two games since a two-point loss at Virginia.
UConn is led by sophomore guard Jalen Adams who averages 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. The Huskies are the 190th-ranked team in the KenPom ratings and rank 317th nationally in points scored per game with 63.7. UConn is allowing 67 points per game on defense.
The Huskies lost three of their top five scorers from a season ago, including Daniel Hamilton who was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round. Adams has taken over point guard duties since Sterling Gibbs left last year and Amida Brimah is his favorite target in the paint, as well as up near the rim where the 7-foot Ghanaian uses his wingspan to score over defenders.
“It seems like they play with a great edge,” Matta said. “They’re a little like us in that when they get rolling, they’re really, really good. We have to do a great job of defending all of their actions.”
Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop returned to the floor against Florida Atlantic for the first time in six games. He sprained his ankle in the second half against Providence on Nov. 17. Bates-Diop contributed 10 points, three rebounds and one assist on Tuesday.
Matta said that the forward from Normal, Illinois, is expected to play, but he doesn’t know if he will start. UConn has shown in past games that it will play several players at multiple positions, which Matta said could force him to change the rotation of the players in the game. He couldn’t say if there will be any starting lineup changes, but the availability of Bates-Diop and the personnel on the court for UConn could dictate how Matta elects to use his players.
A loss to Connecticut would be OSU’s third in four games, after a 6-0 start. To many outside of the program, the loss to Florida Atlantic was a devastating one. But Loving said that the team wasn’t shaken by the loss and that everyone still believes that they can compete with any team.
“You want guys to refocus into how we have to play better,” Matta said. “You don’t want a game like that to define who you are.”
Buckeyes and Huskies tip off at 6 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.