While Thad Matta was adamant yesterday that the Buckeyes game against Minnesota tonight was just one of 18 conference games, there's a lot on the line for Ohio State against the Gophers tonight.
Clearly, starting 1-0 in Big Ten play is preferable to the opposite, and a win would extend Ohio States winning streak to five games and keep the team's momentum going.
"There is always a feeling of, get the victory," junior Marc Loving said. "The morale in the locker room is a lot better having a winning streak. Just putting those wins together, being able to carry over things to practice over to the game is a big plus."
Loving is one of the few Buckeyes who knows what to expect out of Big Ten play. Only he and fellow forward Jae'Sean Tate are the only Ohio State players with Big Ten starts under their belts while Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop have played in the Big Ten before. For every other Buckeye tonight's matchup with Minnesota (6-6) will be their first game in the conference.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, Minnesota is nearly as young as Ohio State and the Gophers have struggled more in the nonconference than nearly any other Big Ten team.
Minnesota has three freshman and two sophomores among its top eight players and has lost four of its last five games. The Gophers have fallen to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee since Dec. 5.
The Gophers are the 149th ranked team according to Ken Pomeroy while the Buckeyes are 52nd. While Richard Pitino's team still attempts to live off turnovers and tempo as they have in years past, Minnesota has struggled in that regard as they are eighth among Big Ten teams with 5.9 steals per game and are 210th nationally in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
Matta said that those stats don't exactly match what he is seeing on film.
“They look quick on film," the coach said. "They look long, they look athletic. I think he’s got some younger guys at key positions as we do and I think they are possibly learning their way as our young guys are and I know that they recruit a certain type of player and from what I’ve seen it looks like they’ve got them out there. Size and athleticism.”
The Gophers are fourth among Big Ten teams in turnover margin at plus-1.8 while the Buckeyes have struggled in that area, giving away 0.5 more turnovers than they are forcing this season.
Ohio State will have to execute against the traps that Minnesota is sure to bring tonight.
“They like to trap," Tate said. "We’re going to have to take care of the ball, try to keep our turnovers short and just execute.”
Added Loving: "They are a very aggressive team. They like to pick the pace up. Keep your poise and keeping control of the game will be a huge key for us."
That will be the key for both young teams tonight in their Big Ten opener. In many ways the Gophers and Buckeyes are similar as they are both breaking in a large group of new players, but they enter this contest heading in different directions.
“I think they are very similar to us just in terms of, you're looking at sort of a new season and a new challenge if you will," Matta said. "They have shown, as we have, that they can play some great basketball. They have got some newer guys like we do and we have seen great athleticism. They have got guys that can score the basketball. Defensively, they are sound in terms of what they do in changing defenses. It's another great Big Ten opener for us."