Typically in college basketball, playing at home merits a sigh of relief from players, coaches and fans.
But for Ohio State — and the majority of the teams in the Big Ten for that matter — playing at home hasn’t necessarily been a safe zone this season, particularly in recent games.
The No. 24 Buckeyes have lost three of six home conference games so far this season, most recently a 70-60 outcome to then-No. 15 Michigan Feb. 11.
But in arguably the team’s biggest setback of the year, OSU fell at home in overtime to Penn State Jan. 29, 71-70, a loss that at the time senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. called “embarrassing.”
On a broader scale, all three Big Ten teams playing host Sunday — then-No. 9 Michigan State, then-No. 15 Michigan and Northwestern — fell, and the continued misfortunes perennial Big Ten powers have had this season begs a question: what’s the reason for all the losses on home court?
“I think it’s just circumstance. I don’t know,” OSU coach Thad Matta said Tuesday. “All three home teams lost Sunday. I don’t know exactly what it is and I think it’s just kind of the nature of this league and the nature of college basketball right now.”
Matta’s Buckeyes (20-6, 7-6, fifth in Big Ten) are next set to host Northwestern (12-14, 5-8, ninth in the Big Ten), one of the teams that fell at home Sunday. Matta said it’s on him if OSU isn’t able to avoid another embarrassing home defeat like the one to the Nittany Lions last month.
“Well, if they’re not (prepared), that’s my fault,” Matta said. “I mean seriously you can’t be — what are we, 12 games into this league? — and not have a pulse of what’s going on. Obviously we’re doing our part in terms of preparation and that sort of thing, but these guys, I know they know what’s at stake here.”
OSU slogged its way past Illinois Saturday, defeating the Fighting Illini in Champaign, Ill., 48-39, despite only scoring 20 points in the first half.
The big contributors in the second half were OSU’s bench players, who overall outscored Illinois’ 17-2. Freshman forward Marc Loving tallied eight points himself, scoring his first points this month.
A slump like Loving’s could prove frustrating, but Loving said that wasn’t necessarily the case because of his mindset shooting the ball.
“I think every shot I shoot is going to go in. So if I miss one, I think, ‘Oh, the next one’s going to go,’” Loving said Tuesday. “If I miss that one, the next one’s going to go in. Eventually it’s going to go down.”
The road win at Illinois was OSU’s fourth victory in five games, and with four of their remaining five contests against teams in the bottom half of the league, the Buckeyes look to be in good shape to get some momentum going into the postseason.
Loving, however, said now is not the time to let thoughts like that get into their heads.
“Every game is important in the Big Ten. From top to bottom, you could lose any game — it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Loving said. “But we want to win every game we play. There’s no step back just because we’re playing a certain team and we feel like winning from here on out is definitely a goal of ours.”
Matta agreed, especially because of the depth of the conference and said no home game is close to a guaranteed victory like it has been in years past.
“It used to be, you had a little bit more of an easy feeling if you were at home,” Matta said. “But this year it doesn’t. I think every game is just sort of a one game type season. And no matter where you’re playing you’ve got to find a way to play your best basketball.
“I think from top to bottom, this league is probably as good as it’s ever been. Just in terms of there’s just nothing easy, no matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing at. It’s a grind,” Matta said.
Regardless of who is on the schedule for the rest of the regular season, Matta said the focus is only on one team — the Wildcats. The team is no stranger to winning away from home this season, capturing conference victories at Indiana, then-No. 14 Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“You take them one at a time. And that’s simply Northwestern tomorrow night,” Matta said. “But at this particular juncture, to gaze off into the future or anything like that would be detrimental to this basketball team.”
The Buckeyes’ contest against Northwestern is set to begin Wednesday at 7 p.m.