When conference play finally rolls around in college basketball, teams across the country begin their pursuit toward conference championships with the hopes of doing enough to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament in March.
For the Ohio State Buckeyes, though, the start of conference play against Purdue New Year’s Eve is simply just another game, OSU coach Thad Matta said. That mindset stems from having a group of experienced players, like senior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., lead the way.
“Honestly, I think it’s just business at hand,” Matta said Monday. “The fact that you have a veteran group, they know (what to expect). For Lenzelle and Aaron, this is their fourth go-round of it and for the junior class, it’s number three … Nothing changes in terms of it’s Big Ten.”
No. 3 OSU (13-0, 0-0) throttled Louisiana-Monroe, 71-31, Dec. 27 and finished its non-conference slate unscathed. The only time the Buckeyes were really tested was Dec. 21, when they had to use a late 14-3 run to top Notre Dame, 64-61, at Madison Square Garden.
Even though Matta said the matchup with the Boilermakers just represents the beginning of the second phase of the season, winning a conference championship is not something that ever comes easily.
“I’ve always said this: Winning a conference championship is the hardest thing I think to do in college basketball because there’s not a lot of secrets as the season wears on,” Matta said. “Each game has a huge stake. Where non-conference you lose a game and it’s not the end of the world, but at the same token we’re not going to deviate — we’re just going to keep getting better.”
The Buckeyes are one of four Big Ten teams currently ranked in the top 25, three of which are in the top 5.
“It’s going to be a war, that’s for sure,” Matta said.
Craft called the start of conference play “exciting” because of the continued success the Big Ten has had recently as a whole.
“Obviously, you jump into Big Ten play where it’s been crazy the past few years, you have to be ready to go every game,” Craft said Monday. “That’s the thing that coach is really trying to emphasize this year again … Everyone’s 0-0, we’re just excited to try and go out and get that first win.”
Junior guard Shannon Scott said getting that first Big Ten win is “really important.”
“You go to Big Ten (play), you could lose any game if you don’t have your ‘A’ game,” Scott said Monday. “As long as we stay on the good track and keep winning as much as we can, we’re going to be doing a good job in Big Ten play.”
The Boilermakers (10-3, 0-0) are arguably the biggest team OSU has played so far this year, with sophomore center A.J. Hammons listed at 7-feet tall, and redshirt-freshman forward Jay Simpson being 6-foot-10. That size, paired with the Buckeyes playing in their second “true” road game of the season, at Mackey Arena, could make things difficult. But having success, Craft said, is just remaining focused on the task at hand.
“There are a lot of distractions when you go on the road, whether it’s the travel, the people and everyone’s kind of yelling at you,” Craft said. “And whether or not it gets too loud in there or whatever may happen, you just really kind of lean on each other. You have to trust in one another and trust one another on the bench. And hopefully you’re making enough plays down the stretch for it to work out.”
Tipoff between the Buckeyes and Boilermakers is set for 1 p.m. New Year’s Eve.