Toughness. Camaraderie. Leadership.
After a 71-70 overtime loss to Penn State Jan. 29, those were three things Ohio State senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said were missing from his team.
It appears the Buckeyes have found them, just in time to take on their archrival — No. 10 Michigan — Tuesday at the Schottenstein Center.
“Definitely my senior year, this is not what I had in mind,” Smith Jr. said after the loss to the Nittany Lions during an emotional postgame interview. “But I’ll never give up on my team, and I know that when we get a cause and we get hungry for wins, and we stick together and we become a team again, I’ll take us against anybody in the country. But right now we gotta find what we’re missing.”
OSU (19-5, 6-5) seems to have found what it’s been searching for, currently in the midst of a three-game winning streak after beating Purdue (14-10, 4-7), 67-49, Saturday at home.
Since the calendar flipped to February, the Buckeyes haven’t lost, beating both then-No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 17 Iowa on the road before taking care of business against the Boilermakers.
After the win, Smith Jr.’s attitude was quite the opposite of what it had been that night in late January.
“We’ve been winning. Simple as that. When you win, I feel good. When we lose, I feel bad,” Smith Jr. said with a smile.
Smith Jr. had been in a shooting slump as of late, shooting just 32.9 percent in the eight games since OSU’s 15-0 start to the season and before Saturday. That changed Saturday, when he poured in 16 points and shot 4-7 from beyond the arc against the Boilermakers.
“It definitely opens things up for us,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the win about Smith Jr. making shots. “We want Lenzelle to take those shots when he’s open. He hit a big pull-up in the first half when they ran him off the line (and) he shot faked. But seeing him play like a senior, honestly I expect our seniors to play like that at Ohio State because they usually don’t make it that long.”
The good vibes have spread throughout the team in the last week and a half, and the team seems to be playing some of its best ball of the season heading into a showdown with Michigan.
“Any time you can get wins, it adds confidence to the team, so that’s a great thing for us,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross — who scored a game-high 17 points against Purdue — said after the win Saturday. “I think we play a lot better when everybody’s got confidence. It’s good getting a win before we go play Michigan.
“It’s a great feeling. Winning cures all, like I said before, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think everybody’s been feeling a lot better.”
It wasn’t just Smith Jr. who hit outside shots against the Boilermakers, as Ross, junior guard Shannon Scott and junior forward Sam Thompson also combined to hit four 3-pointers. That team effort helped secure the win, and Purdue coach Matt Painter said OSU is still a team to be reckoned with despite the struggles it endured last month.
“They’re a good team, and you’re going to go through some tough times in this league,” Painter said after the game. “They’ll be there at the end. They’ll be good in the NCAA Tournament.”
Even with three straight conference victories, OSU still sits fourth in the Big Ten standings, three games behind conference leaders Michigan State and Michigan. The Buckeyes will have a chance to make up more ground against the Wolverines (17-6, 9-2) Tuesday, who — despite losing on the road against Iowa Saturday — are now tied for the conference lead because the Spartans lost a thriller to Wisconsin Sunday.
“Pretty sure my team’s feeling good right now, but tomorrow’s a different day. Everybody’s probably going to forget about this one and we gotta get ready,” Smith Jr. said. “We got a great opponent coming in here now. They’re a great team and they’re playing some really good basketball as of late and we gotta be prepared to play even better basketball if we want to match that and get the win here.”
Matta agreed, adding that one bad stretch of basketball could mean a loss in the Big Ten.
“You’d like to feel good, you’d like to feel great. But right now, geez. One bad segment of a game could cost you the game with what we have left on our schedule in terms of who we’re playing and when we’re playing, where we’re playing,” Matta said. “I hope our guys are feeling better about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it. That’s why I want them to be confident. Just in terms of our execution’s better, I think defensively we’ve been a lot more active and communication’s been a lot better.”
Whether it’s communication, energy or more effort, something has changed with the Buckeyes since Smith Jr.’s emotional interview after the Penn State loss — and the team could be peaking at the right time because of it.
“Our maturity as a team has picked up a little bit. Ever since I had that interview and I said we were missing camaraderie and leadership, I think we found a lot of that stuff we were missing,” Smith Jr. said. “And it’s great because this is the time when you want to be playing your best basketball. As long as we can keep this train going like that without any stops like that or any bumps in the road, I think we’re going to be very happy and a very successful basketball team.”
Tuesday’s game is set for 9 p.m.