Men's Cagers Put Unbeaten Record On The Line

As the only unbeaten team remaining in the nation, No. 1 Ohio State heads to Northwestern today for game No. 22 in the season. In an effort to stave off the upset chances of the Wildcats, the Buckeyes -- including freshman Deshaun Thomas (pictured) -- are trying to follow head coach Thad Matta's message of remaining even keel.

Given the recent string of upsets in the Big Ten, No. 1 Ohio State would be well served to be on upset alert today at Northwestern.

In Thad Matta's program, however, that is becoming a given regardless of the game at hand or position in the national rankings. The head man for the Buckeyes preaches a message of remaining as even keel as possible whether on a hot streak or mired in a losing skid in an effort to insulate his players from the ups and downs that occur naturally throughout the season.

It will be in play today as OSU takes to the road to face an unranked Northwestern team (6 p.m., ESPN2) that could be without leading scorer John Shurna. Two days after unranked Indiana and Michigan knocked off No. 20 Illinois and No. 25 Michigan State, respectively, the Buckeyes will try not to suffer the same fate.

"It goes back to we only worry about ourselves," Matta said. "You're going to have those types of games throughout the course of the Big Ten. It's unfortunate when you're a part of them. Maybe it opens our guys' eyes a little bit more and lets them know that things can happen, which is always a good thing for our guys to understand that."

Junior guard William Buford said he was not aware of the upsets scored in the conference earlier in the week, saying he was only focused on preparing for the Wildcats.

He also professed to not know how many games the Buckeyes had won this season, only how many losses they have: zero.

"Nobody has an ego," he said. "Nobody talks about our record. We just try to get better and try to get together as a unit."

Although Buford is in his third season with the program, Matta's even-keel message has apparently reached the newcomers as well. Following victories, freshman Deshaun Thomas said he typically receives nearly two dozen text messages offering congratulations on the outcome.

Thomas said he offers each person the same response: "I just text them like, ‘Yeah, thanks, OK. We've got a big game next.' "

It helps that the Buckeyes have not been lights-out dominant in road conference games this season. Although OSU is the only unbeaten team left in the nation at 21-0, wins on the road have been tougher contests. The Buckeyes' average margin of victory at home stands at 12.8 points per contest while the road winning margin dips to 8.0 points per game.

Of OSU's four road wins, three have come by five points or less. In road wins against Iowa and Michigan, the Buckeyes allowed double-digit second-half leads dwindle before emerging victorious. At Illinois, OSU found itself forced to rally in the closing minutes after struggling offensively for much of the game.

This season, Northwestern boasts a 9-2 record at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The common thread in each of the close road victories is that the Buckeyes have found ways to win even while not playing their best games. That is a trait Matta said all teams do not possess.

"It's why we try to recruit kids that come from winning programs because there are nights where you're not playing well," the coach said. "Shots aren't going in and you've got to lock down and you've got to defend."

Now at the midway point of the conference slate with a two-game lead on all opposition in the loss column, Matta pointed out the importance of grinding out victories away from home.

"That's probably one of the biggest challenges of any conference race," he said. "You've got to go on the road and you've got to steal a couple victories here and there but respect that it's going to be challenging."

Matta said he felt his team was dialed in for the challenge despite facing an unranked team after consecutive wins against top-25 foes. That sentiment reached him while in conversation with the father of an unnamed player.

"He said he asked his son when the next home game was and he said ‘I have no idea. We play at Northwestern Saturday,' " Matta said. "You love that as a coach."

Added Thomas: "Like Coach Matta said, it's not over. We've still got a long season. Now it's just get ready for the next practice. I used to get all hyped because I'm a freshman but now it's just move onto the next one, try to get ready for the next game and get better as a player."

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