Tougher Road Starts Today For OSU

Ohio State has climbed to the No. 1 ranking with a perfect 19-0 record, but things are about to get a lot more challenging. Today, the Buckeyes start a stretch that will see seven of their next nine games be played against ranked teams with a road contest against Illinois.

Thad Matta has viewed achieving the nation's No. 1 ranking as being similar to the ascent of a mountain: it is hard to get to the top but easy to slide back down to the bottom. It is a sentiment has been expressed a number of times in the past two weeks by the Ohio State men's basketball head coach.

It is just a coincidence that the road for the Buckeyes becomes much more difficult on the heels of their ascent to the top of the polls.

Today, OSU takes to the road to face No. 23 Illinois (noon, CBS), a team that on its home court just knocked off No. 17 Michigan State on Tuesday. The Buckeyes boast a 19-0 record, but just one of the teams they have beaten currently resides in the nation's top 25 rankings: Minnesota, which dropped a 67-64 decision Jan. 9 in Columbus.

After the tip against the Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes host Purdue on Tuesday night for a 9 p.m. showdown. The Boilermakers sit 14th nationally with a 16-3 record and are the only Big Ten team with one conference loss.

As ESPN's Dana O'Neil put it while moving the Buckeyes atop her power rankings, "This week OSU will truly earn its ranking."

It has left some doubting whether or not the Buckeyes deserve to be the nation's top-ranked team.

"I'm sure there are people out there who are saying that," senior guard Jon Diebler said. "We're honestly worried about how much we're getting better every day as a team. People might look and say, ‘Well, you haven't played some of the top teams in the Big Ten.'

"We're proud of the fact that we've won three road games to start off the conference. We've got some great tests come up and we're excited for those challenges."

OSU's first six conference wins have come against five different teams with Iowa having been defeated twice. Those five teams enter today with a combined record of 52-40 but an 8-21 ledger in Big Ten play and occupy five of the bottom six spots in the conference standings.

However, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said he feels OSU has been tested because it has won its first three Big Ten road games. While his team has played three games against ranked Big Ten foes already, Weber said he does not feel that will give his team much of an advantage in this one.

"It might have tested them early in the Big Ten to go on the road," he said. "They went to Indiana and had their way but the next game it seemed like a little bit more of a test. You can look at it two ways: you prepare yourself better but on the other hand now you get to learn a lot about your team and get more confidence."

It does not get easier from here for the Buckeyes. After a Jan. 29 road contest against Northwestern – the Wildcats are 9-1 at home – and home game Feb. 3 against Michigan, OSU's next five games are all against teams ranked in the top 25.

Starting today, it marks a stretch during which seven of OSU's next nine opponents feature in the polls. Asked if he was excited about the challenge ahead, Matta sarcastically replied, "elated."

Senior forward David Lighty echoed one of Matta's most common refrains as he looked at what lies ahead.

"You can only play one team at one time," he said following Wednesday's win against Iowa. "Whoever is next, that's who we've got to worry about. We've got to have our minds right, come out ready and not turn the ball over 20 times."

Friday, Lighty added that he is excited to put his team to the test against the Fighting Illini.

"It will be a good test for us," he said. "I think we know we have the potential to be real great. It's just about us coming out and playing 40 minutes of great defense and offense. When we put a game together of offense and defense then things will start going for us."

Buckeye Sports Top Stories