Matta Still Molding Buckeyes

Big Ten play begins with head coach Thad Matta holding his Ohio State men's basketball team to a high standard. He wants to see more consistent effort at both ends of the floor when the second-ranked Buckeyes play host to Northwestern tonight at Value City Arena in Columbus.

When Ohio State opens its Big Ten title defense tonight with a visit from Northwestern at 5:30, the Buckeyes will be a team head coach Thad Matta seems to feel is a work in progress.

Despite standing at No. 2 in the polls with a 12-1 record, the Buckeyes have not shown the sustained effort on defense or execution on offense Matta demands.

"It's just getting guys to where their minds are right, to where they are ready to practice, to learn in film, ready to go out and work," Matta said Tuesday afternoon. "That's one of the biggest obstacles, and that's maturity. I've said from the get-go with this team that we have to have a maturity about us from a standpoint of preparation and learning."

"The fact that we've got great kids is huge for us and we've got guys who want to win, so that's exciting."

The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten in both scoring offense and defense, but they are only eighth in field goal percentage defense. They have been proficient at taking the ball away – 8.7 steals per game, good for fourth in the conference – but not at blocking shots, where they rank last with 2.4 per contest.

More advanced stats such as those kept by Ken Pomeroy show Ohio State second in the country in defensive efficiency, but Matta was not buying it on Tuesday afternoon.

"I don't know why I say that, but I think there is so much more room for improvement," he said. "I'm not sold we've got all five guys connected yet on every possession the way we need it. I think the difference with last year's team is when you've got veteran guys out there you can make a mistake and they know how to cover up for it. Here we don't quite have that down yet."

On the bright side, Matta was happy to report a fully healthy team coming out of a short break for Christmas. That includes star big man Jared Sullinger, who was hobbled by a back injury then a bruised foot. He had 11 points and six rebounds in a 69-40 victory Dec. 22 against Miami (Ohio).

"I think physically he's fine," Matta said. "After Thursday night's game there was some swelling on his foot, but we do skill instruction all the time and he went an extended time without that so I think it's more just him getting his wind, getting his lift and getting back into the flow of things."

As for the task at hand on opening night of the Big Ten, the Wildcats are not one of the five conference teams ranked in the most recent Associated Press top 25, but they are among the nine Big Ten squads to win at least 10 games so far.

They enter Value City Arena No. 1 in the league in made three-pointers (114) and featuring the Big Ten's top two scorers. John Shurna (19.4 points per game) is a sharp-shooting 6-9 senior forward while Drew Crawford (18.1 ppg.) is a 6-5 junior guard.

Northwestern gave the Buckeyes some fits last season and the potential is there for them to do so again as Ohio State continues to break in several new pieces to the lineup.

"It's a combination of style of play and really good players," Matta said of the Wildcats. They've lost a couple of guys off of last year's team, but they're a veteran basketball team.

"I think (Shurna) has got a very quick release and he's 6-9 so he can shoot over a lot of guys and he's got a green light. They do a very good job of getting him open in a good position to do things."

The Buckeyes are heavy favorites to win a 22nd Big Ten championship, but Matta does not want them to look past Big Ten play to the NCAA Tournament.

"We get into conference play and now everyone wants to talk about March," the coach said. "I know our mindset is we need to understand these 18 battles are some of the funnest times of your life."

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