Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
When Thad Matta was coaching at Xavier in 2004, the Musketeers had a three-game stretch against Mississippi State, Texas and Duke.
Each of those teams was ranked in the top 11 of the Associated Press poll, with MSU (No. 4) and Duke (No. 5) placed in the top five. Those contests came in the NCAA Tournament, as Matta led Xavier to its first-ever appearance in the Elite Eight before losing a close one to the Blue Devils, 66-63.
“It was crazy,” Matta said Monday, who left Xavier after that season to coach Ohio State.
As treacherous a task as that was for Matta and his team, his current Buckeyes squad is staring down a two-game trek that might be even tougher than the one Xavier faced in 2004. OSU will play two top-three teams in a six-day span this week. And these upcoming bouts will come in the regular season, not in March when consecutive battles against elite programs are commonplace.
OSU, ranked No. 10 in the most recent AP poll, is set to take on No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor Tuesday night. After squaring off against the Wolverines, the Buckeyes return home Sunday to play the No. 1 team in the country, Indiana.
“It’s another week,” Matta said so sarcastically he cracked a smile before finishing the sentence.
Matta’s players weren’t as light-hearted in talking about the venture ahead.
“It’s why you come to Ohio State and play in a conference like the Big Ten, for weeks like this,” said junior guard Aaron Craft.
The Buckeyes’ leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas, agreed, saying he “loves a challenge.”
“I’m hyped,” the junior forward said, who leads the conference in scoring at 20 points per game.
At 7-2 in the Big Ten, OSU is a game back of the Hoosiers, who are all alone in first place. The Buckeyes share a tie of second with Michigan and Michigan State. OSU is 1-1 against those teams this season, beating Michigan at home but losing to the Spartans on the road.
Every team in the Big Ten plays 18 conference games, so no two-game stretch at the midway point is going to decide the league champion. But if OSU wants to stay alive and well in the race for a fourth consecutive regular season title, winning at least one game this week might be necessary.
Thomas would love to win both.
“It’s going to mean a lot for this team, especially if we get two wins against Michigan, they’re highly ranked. If we get a win against IU, we know we got to go down there and it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be big if we can get these two wins,” he said.
This week also represents a turning point in the season for the Buckeyes. OSU (17-4) is exactly halfway through its conference schedule, and they’ll likely be tested much more in the second half of the year than they were in the first. During their first nine Big Ten games, the Buckeyes played five of the worst six teams in the league, and only three of the six best.
OSU’s second half includes two games against No. 1 Indiana (20-2), trips to No. 3 Michigan (20-2) and unranked Wisconsin (15-7), and home games against No. 12 Michigan State (18-4) and No. 18 Minnesota (17-5).
In his ninth year coaching in the Big Ten, Matta said the league is as competitive as he’s seen it.
“I think that probably from top to bottom it’s as good – and we haven’t seen everybody yet – but seeing on tape, seeing scores, seeing the standings, I would probably agree (it’s as good as ever),” Matta said.
For now, though, OSU is just focusing on the Wolverines. The Buckeyes gave Michigan its first loss on Jan. 13 with a 56-53 win, also preventing the Maize and Blue from ascending to a No. 1 national ranking.
“To be honest, we haven’t even talked about Sunday’s game,” Matta said. “Obviously the mindset is on tomorrow night’s game, knowing that they have a great team.”
Michigan, ranked No. 1 last week, dropped in the polls after losing at Indiana Saturday night. Add in the fact that OSU beat the Wolverines the first time around in Columbus, and Michigan will be ready Tuesday night, Craft said.
“There is no way we can try to look past this game in any way,” Craft said.
Getting out to a fast start in Ann Arbor will be crucial for the Buckeyes, Craft said. In Michigan’s two losses this season, they fell in a big hole early and couldn’t recover. OSU, 3-3 on the road this season, probably needs to at least stay even with the Wolverines (undefeated at home) early to have a chance for an upset.
Doing that will require solid defense, something OSU has relied on all season.
“Defensively I think we’re pretty sound,” Matta said. “We’re trying to get our guys to have a prideful mentality in terms of getting stops. We want to continue to get them to understand we have to have that for 40 minutes.”
That won’t be easy against the Wolverines, who are led by a National Player of the Year candidate and Columbus native Trey Burke. The sophomore point guard has potentially the country’s best sidekick in junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who averages 15.6 points per game. Two freshmen, guard Nik Stauskas and forward Glenn Robinson III, also average double figures in points.
OSU has played three teams this season currently ranked in the top 12 by the AP in No. 4 Duke, No. 5 Kansas and No. 12 MSU, not including Michigan. The Wolverines are likely the toughest team the Buckeyes have had to defend.
“With the number of people they can put out there, the number of people that can score the ball, it’s really tough to play normal defense when you’re worried about the number of shooters they have,” Craft said.
Defending Michigan’s shooters is just one of the many challenges OSU is facing in the week ahead.
Matta said his team is as close to being ready for the daunting task as he’d like them to be.
“We had two good practices. I’ve never had a team exactly where I wanted it. I do think we’re making strides. We just have to continue to find that consistency and every night we take the floor, we need our guys to play the best that we can,” the 45-year-old coach said.
OSU and Michigan are scheduled to tipoff at 9 p.m. Tuesday night in the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes then take on Indiana at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Schottenstein Center.