Frantic Pace Prepping Buckeyes For Big Ten

The slate of opponents on tap for No. 2 Ohio State might not set the world on fire, but head coach Thad Matta is hoping that it will prepare the Buckeyes for one that will. Find out how as junior guard William Buford and his teammates prepare to face Florida Gulf Coast this evening.

Ohio State's upcoming list of opponents might not read like a list from Murderer's Row, but it might help prepare them for one that will.

Tonight's home contest with Florida Gulf Coast (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) marks the third of seven games being played by the No. 2 Buckeyes in less than 19 days. The list of opponents includes five teams with sub-.500 records, but head coach Thad Matta said the frantic pace of the coming days will give his six freshmen a glimpse into what Big Ten play will be like.

"I think this is a great lesson for our guys to (learn) mentally," he said. "You wake up in the morning and it's the next thing, it's ‘Who is the next opponent?' That's what we're still trying to get established with these guys is that mentality of, ‘Unconditional, we don't care who it is, here we come and we're going to play.' "

Although the Buckeyes start three seniors and one junior, it is a lesson that continually needs repeating with such a young group of players behind them. For those freshmen, it means spending more time watching film then they have ever experienced.

That especially is true for forward Jared Sullinger, who won a state title as a junior while playing for his father, Satch, at Columbus Northland.

"In high school you didn't have coaches break down film and break down plays," he said. "You just went out there. My father, he looked at the team and told you the lineups and who you would guard and that's about it. With Ohio State, we're watching film and you really have to focus and concentrate on what you want to do."

Matta said he is examining body language when it comes time to sit through another film session. If a player has droopy eyes, for example, and shows exasperation at being subjected to another film session the coach said he will not put that player into game action.

Spending much more time breaking down film is just one adjustment that the core of young players is still getting used to. Throughout the first eight games of the season, Matta said he has been stressing the importance of playing at an elite level on every single night regardless of opponent.

It is a lesson his charges are apparently still learning. The Buckeyes trailed IUPUI by nine points in the second half Dec. 9, for example, before rallying for the victory against a team that sits 4-8 headed into Wednesday's games.

Matta said his players are still learning the importance of each time they touch the ball in a game.

"I still don't think this team values every possession for 40 minutes," he said. "I think that's one of the things we've got to continue to hone in on knowing we're not going to hold a team scoreless and we're not going to make every shot we take, but the next possession is the most important possession. That's been the message here the last couple days."

Junior guard William Buford said it took him until partway through his sophomore season to understand what Matta meant.

"You can't come out and just play like you play in open gym in the games," he said. "You've got to value every possession if you want to win tough games deep down the stretch. You know as a freshman you're immature and you hear it but you didn't hear it. I just wanted to score and shoot. That was about it."

Sullinger said Matta has been preaching the concept to his players in the context of what it will take to be successful when conference play rolls around.

"He's talking about how we need to handle our business every possession, execute on the offensive end and just stay active on the defensive end," he said. "We just can't get bored."

Growing complacent will likely not be a challenge once Big Ten play begins Dec. 31 with a road contest against Indiana. Matta has joked on a number of occasions that he will not think about conference play until it actually arrives because he wants to be able to enjoy himself during the holiday season.

The question then becomes whether or not the team's efforts to take each game with equal importance will change when the slate of games on the schedule becomes more difficult.

"We're all humans," he said. "Guys have a better understanding of when you get in conference play every game has a significant meaning. There's now a different record on your schedule."

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