Sitting at the podium in the bowels of the Schottenstein Center addressing the media Wednesday afternoon, Thad Matta pretended to flip a coin. The Ohio State men’s basketball coach looked upward, watching the imaginary disk rotate, before acting as if he caught it in the palm of his right hand.
Completing the action, Matta slapped his right hand onto the backside of his left one, as he then showed the media what the result of the phantom flip was.
“That’s what it is sometimes,” he said.
What spurred Matta to put on the routine was a question about the toughness of his youthful Buckeyes. His response showed just how hit-or-miss his team’s performances have been this season.
The effort is there one night then gone the next, with seemingly no rhyme or reason, as if it’s up to chance — like flipping a coin.
“That’s got to be where we get that constant,” Matta said of his team’s toughness. “I think we’re making strides in that regard. What I’m trying to avoid the best I can is any setbacks. That’s something that continues to be preached.”
Likely prompted by a shift in the starting lineup, the Buckeyes’ toughness was visible Monday night in their 66-46 victory over Penn State. Freshmen A.J. Harris and Daniel Giddens cracked the starting lineup and helped provide OSU (13-8, 5-3) with the edge in the 20-point win.
The question now, like it has been all season long, is which team will show up in the next game, which is scheduled to be Thursday night on the road against Illinois (10-10, 2-5).
Will the starting five once again contain Harris and Giddens, meaning freshman guard JaQuan Lyle and redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson will come off the bench for the second consecutive night?
“It could,” Matta said. “I just want to see guys fight.”
That fight he is looking for in his players comes not only during live action but in practice, too. Matta said Harris and Giddens looked “noticeably different” leading up to the Penn State game, which explains the variation in the starting lineup.
At the time of Matta speaking to the media, practice had yet to take place for the day, but the coach said he thinks Harris and Giddens understand how important it is for “what they do.”
Giddens, who missed practice Tuesday because of illness, insisted that he doesn’t know what the starting lineup will look like against the Fighting Illini.
“He just wants five guys to be prepared to go on the floor,” Giddens said. “Consistency has been an issue.”
Although still searching for it on a more regular basis, sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop, who had a team-high 22 points against the Nittany Lions, said he felt that the team displayed a performance consistent both offensively and defensively on Monday.
Matta agreed, saying that what transpired on the floor was just what he hoped for when he made the move to change the lineups.
“That’s what I’m after,” he said. “Give me the constant, in terms of the effort, the toughness we need, both physically and mentally.”
As for the result of the pretend coin flip, was it heads or tails? Will the toughness Matta has been searching for — and maybe found with the lineup switch — be there once the ball goes up?
“I’ll tell you tomorrow at 9 p.m.,” he said, laughing. “Or 9:02 p.m.”
A glimpse at Illinois
The Fighting Illini have dropped five of their last seven games, but they head into Thursday’s matchup with a five-point win over Minnesota fresh in their minds.
In that game on Saturday in Minneapolis, Illinois got a 28-point performance from junior guard Malcolm Hill to help carry his team to the victory.
It was the 10th time this season that Hill led his team in scoring. Overall, he averages a team-leading 18.3 points per contest.
The 6-foot-6 guard has good size for a backcourt player, and the Buckeyes know that he can fill it up despite holding him to 4-of-13 shooting and 14 points when the two teams met on Jan. 3.
Along with Hill, fellow junior guard Kendrick Nunn has been excelling since returning from an early-season injury to provide coach John Groce with a formidable backcourt duo.
The Chicago native averages just over 17 points a game on 45 percent shooting, while also scooping up 5.4 rebounds per contest.
Matta acknowledged the recent play of the duo, describing its performance as “high-level.”
Building off the strength of these two guards, the Fighting Illini have a tendency to play small, sometimes using four backcourt players at the same time. Typically, this could be a wrinkle in the gameplan for a team that has effective post players, like OSU, but Giddens said he sees “no problems” for the Buckeyes.
“As long as we come in focused and ready to go, we’ll be fine,” he said.
After Thursday’s game, OSU will return to Columbus to prepare for its shot to avenge a 35-point loss to Maryland earlier in the month. The Buckeyes and the eighth-ranked Terrapins are scheduled to hit the hardwood Sunday. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.