When the No. 2 Buckeyes emerged from their locker room with a live feed broadcasting their movements to fans in Value City Arena, a number of sheets of white paper were plastered all across the inside of the door. The sheets of paper contained one word repeated relentlessly in all capital letters.
The word was toughness, and it was something that head coach Thad Matta said he felt his players had lacked down the stretch Feb. 12 in suffering a road loss to Wisconsin that served as the first blemish upon their record this season.
"Probably defensively we didn't dictate what they wanted to do in the last 10 minutes of the game (against the Badgers)," OSU senior forward David Lighty said. "We let them do whatever they wanted to do. They didn't feel us, is what coach said. We didn't put pressure on them defensively and we let them get in a rhythm and we know what the outcome was."
Matta said he has used similar methods throughout the season focusing on phrases such as jump to the ball, block out, or even simply make shots.
In the Wisconsin game, the Buckeyes watched a 15-point second-half lead completely evaporate as the hot-shooting home team pulled off the comeback. The message of toughness apparently reached the players Tuesday as this time they used a strong second half to fend off the upset challenge from the unranked Spartans and earn a 10-point victory.
Now it will come into play again this afternoon as the Buckeyes take to the road to face No. 11 Purdue (1 p.m., CBS), a team they handled with stunning ease in Columbus nearly a month ago. In that contest, an expected Big Ten slugfest never materialized as the Buckeyes ran away with it early and cruised to an 87-64 victory that was not even that close.
Asked if he will simply copy the blueprint from that contest in the rematch, Matta laughed.
"There's certain times when things go really well for one team and maybe not as well for the other team," he said. "I've been on both sides of that fence. We obviously have a great amount of respect for Purdue and know how good of a basketball team they truly are. I'd like to be able to take the blueprint but I don't think they're going to allow us to duplicate it."
The key in the last contest with the Boilermakers was the fact that the Buckeyes locked up their opponents early on the defensive end. OSU opened the game on a 19-5 run during which Purdue went 2 for 8 from the field and committed three turnovers, and things would only get worse from there for the visitors.
Lighty said the fact that he and his teammates came out clicking at the defensive end is something they are hoping to replicate today.
"It's a whole new game but you just look at how we played defensively to start the game," he said. "That's what got them out of their rhythm. Of course we know they're a great team and they're going to be ready to play us. For them, they're trying to win a Big Ten championship just like us.
"It's going to (take) a lot of that, especially with how they like to play. It's going to be a real Big Ten matchup, a physical game. You're going to need a lot of toughness and people to make plays down the stretch. That's what is probably going to separate the difference in the game."
With five Big Ten games remaining for both teams, the Boilermakers are in the best position to catch the Buckeyes. Riding a three-game winning streak entering the game that includes a home victory Wednesday night against Wisconsin, the Boilermakers sit two games behind the Buckeyes in the standings.
A victory for OSU would put a three-game cushion between itself and its nearest conference opponent with four games to play. It would set the Buckeyes up to clinch an outright title as early as Feb. 27 at home against cellar-dweller Indiana. Also at stake is a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Not that Matta is focused on much past the toughness that will be necessary to knock off the Boilermakers.
"There's so much basketball still to be played, so many great challenges for our team," he said. "I don't think about that stuff until we're finally done with the regular season. I just want us to continue to get better. We had a great practice (Thursday). It was very exciting. Guys were really, really good (Thursday). I felt good after practice."