As the Ohio State football team’s season nears its end, Buckeye men’s basketball is only heating up.
OSU is ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll following wins last week against Maryland and Central Connecticut State. The Buckeyes are finishing up Fall Semester finals this week and preparing for Bryant University (6-4, 0-0) to visit Columbus Wednesday. The game will be the first of four for the Buckeyes in the Gotham Classic.
The busy exam schedule off the court has been trying for some, particularly senior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who is looking to wrap things up for graduation.
“It is very tough, me being a senior, it’s the last hurdle before graduation for me,” Smith, Jr., said Tuesday. “At this point, a lot of guys in my position get that senioritis, so I’m trying to stay away from that.”
Smith, Jr., said even with the high team ranking, the Buckeyes will have to work on getting better during winter break.
“(Being) No. 2 brings a lot of pressure. Obviously we know just being an Ohio State Buckeye, we already know we have a target or a bullseye on us, every time we step on the court we feel like teams are going to give us their best shot,” Smith, Jr., said. “Becoming No. 2 or whatever spot you’re at, teams want to knock you off … You can’t take days off.”
Smith, Jr., said OSU coach Thad Matta preaches that the break from school is when “teams either get worse or they get better,” and Matta said he hopes the team’s current ranking makes his players want to do the latter.
“I hope for our guys it’s a little bit of a motivator. But I know this, and we’ve talked about this: It’s a motivator for the opponent, too,” Matta said Tuesday. “You watch teams leading into the game, and they seem to play a little bit better than we’ve seen them play, and I think that’s a respect that our guys have, and with a veteran team they understand that. And know that you’ve got to bring that every single night and answer the challenge no matter where you are. But I think from a standpoint of where we sit today, I like the position for this team.”
The Buckeyes (8-0, 0-0) are set to enter Wednesday’s contest against Bryant with four players, Smith, Jr., junior center Amir Williams, senior guard Aaron Craft and junior forward LaQuinton Ross, averaging in double figures in scoring. Ross has been especially hot of late, breaking out of a slow start to average 20 points over the Buckeyes’ last three wins.
“I think that (Ross) being a threat of shooting the ball the way that he is right now, the percentage that he is shooting is definitely opening things up,” Matta said. “You have to have a little bit more awareness of where he is.”
Smith, Jr., agreed, adding that Ross’ improvement is helping the team as a whole by taking more pressure off his teammates.
“I think the more people we can have giving us a balanced scoring threat on the court just makes it easier for everyone else,” Smith, Jr. said. “Just takes a little pressure offensively off a couple guys’ minds.”
Bulldogs redshirt-junior guard Dyami Starks leads his team in scoring, averaging 22.1 points per game. Smith, Jr., said Starks is a guy “who hasn’t met a shot he doesn’t like.”
“He puts the ball up and he’s shooting a pretty consistent clip right now,” Smith, Jr., said. “So whether it be Craft or me (guarding him), I think it’s going to be a personal challenge and a good matchup. Especially with the type of defense we play.”
Bryant stuck with Notre Dame Monday, getting within four points with just over two minutes to play before falling, 70-59, to the Irish.
“I tell you what, you’ve got a very, very solid basketball team coming in here,” Matta said on Bryant. “Obviously they’ve got the one man who’s averaging (22) and (senior forward Alex Francis) averaging 16 and a half. But the other guys have all had big nights. They’re experienced.”
Though the Bulldogs may be poised to come in and upset the high-ranked Buckeyes, the pressure on the OSU side will be low.
“That’s what comes with the game, being No. 1, No. 2, No. 10 or whatever,” Williams said. “You gotta go out and try to keep that No. 2 spot or eventually get to that No. 1 spot.”
Tipoff between the Buckeyes and Bulldogs is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
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