Florida Trips Helped Prepare Buckeyes

Ohio State's only two losses of the season came on the road, but an early-season stretch saw the Buckeyes defeat Florida and Florida State on their respective home court. Those wins gave head coach Thad Matta an indication that his team might be a formidable one down the road.

Even at the time, they served as two key early-season victories for Ohio State. Now, nearly four months later, wins against Florida and Florida State look even more impressive with the NCAA Tournament field down to 16 teams.

In those early-season contests against teams that would both go on to reach the Sweet 16, an OSU team that would have to heavily rely on at least two freshmen on every night began to understand what it meant to play together. With the Buckeyes now focusing their sights on a run to a national championship, they do so with a sense of confidence that started to be forged on successive road trips to the Sunshine State.

Each presented a different challenge. The contest with the Gators served as the second game of the season for an OSU squad containing crucial freshmen still feeling their way into the flow of college basketball. Plus, it came against the team that defeated the Buckeyes in the 2006-07 national championship game.

"I think it was good because for this team there was so much going into that game," head coach Thad Matta said. "We were two top-10 teams in the country. Just the little bit of the history between us, it was a big game for us. I thought our guys handled the situation very well."

Trailing by three at the half, the Buckeyes came out firing in the second stanza and outscored their hosts by a 55-34 margin to earn the 93-75 victory. Facing a dogged Florida press, freshman guard Aaron Craft handled the pressure and handed out five assists against three turnovers.

It was an early indication that the freshman would be able to shoulder a heavy load this season.

"He really steps up to the plate and really plays basketball too," said freshman Jared Sullinger, who also opened eyes by tying for the game high with 26 points in the win. "Aaron's a really good leader as a freshman. Nobody knows that. With older guys and adding Aaron to give us his thing or two, it really helps us out."

Exactly two weeks later, the second-ranked Buckeyes survived one of the ugliest games of the season: a 58-44 win against the Seminoles that saw OSU set season lows in scoring and field-goal percentage. The Buckeyes went 19 for 59 (32.2 percent) from the floor but harassed the Seminoles into committing 22 turnovers in hanging on for the victory.

"Down by three against Florida and then at Florida State no shots were falling but we still were playing defense," Craft said. "(Matta) got a better grasp on what kind of players he has in this program."

In addition, as Craft pointed out, the experience showed the younger players that older players such as David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford could be counted on in such situations.

With both wins in the books, Matta said he was no longer curious about what type of team he had under his command.

"Probably the bigger one was when we went to Florida State because I wanted to see if they could do it again and they definitely answered the call that night," the coach said.

All three of the squads will play regional semifinal games this weekend. Thursday evening, second-seeded Florida will face No. 3 seed BYU. One day later, the top-seeded Buckeyes face Kentucky, a No. 4 seed, while 10th-seeded FSU faces VCU for the right to advance to the Elite 8.

While the Gators were considered a favorite to advance this far, the Seminoles busted a number of brackets on their journey. After defeating Texas A&M in the opening round, FSU stunned No. 2 seed Notre Dame on Sunday night with a 71-57 decision.

The only way for an OSU rematch with either Florida team would be a date in the national championship. However, the lessons learned against the Gators and Seminoles should help the Buckeyes when they hit the court Friday in Newark, N.J.

"Preparation is what we've done in going to Florida, going to Florida State and nine games on the road in the Big Ten," Matta said Sunday. "I've seen this year some of the most hostile environments and I think our guys have handled it well. We played Syracuse a few years ago in the Garden.

"It is what it is. We know we'll have our fans. We've got a great base out there. But we've got to do our job on the court, that's for sure."

Buckeye Sports Top Stories