Basketball: OSU Hosts Morehead State

Ohio State is coming off its most impressive performance of the season, a 77-71 victory over Texas Tech. Next up for the Buckeyes is Morehead State, the first of four consecutive home games. We have comments from head coach Thad Matta, Je'Kel Foster, Tony Stockman, J.J. Sullinger and Terence Dials.

Ohio State (7-2) hosts Morehead State (5-2) Sunday at 4 p.m. at Value City Arena.

The Buckeyes are coming off their best performance of the season – a 77-71 win over Texas Tech.

Head coach Thad Matta wants to see his team build on the momentum they picked up in Dallas.

"This starts a four-game homestand for us and the biggest thing with this team is trying to get them to understand – and I know people are getting tired of me saying it – that this team is not where we want it to be," Matta said. "We just want to be where we were (against Texas Tech) and it's all about us going into practice and having great workouts and continuing to improve."

Matta is seeing gradual improvement, but knows the Buckeyes have a long way to go.

"I felt we got a little bit better from the Portland State game, to the Texas Tech game," he said. "We've had a couple good workouts now and we're continuing to build our team. As coaches, we have to make sure we keep emphasizing the right things for these guys to continue to improve. It's still early in the season, and we've got a tough test on Sunday and we need to get ourselves ready to go."

The Buckeyes have been shooting well from the outside all season. One of the factors is that opposing teams are focusing on OSU center Terence Dials.

"I think that obviously helps us," Matta said. "The last two games, Terence has played well at both ends of the floor. I've been more concerned with his defense throughout the course of the year than I have his offense. But, when he's playing well for us, it obviously helps things from the inside-outside game. I think he's shown that he's willing to share the basketball and I think that helps us."

Matta preaches the team concept every day in practice. Some players need to score, others need to do the dirty work down low.

"It's important to get our guys to understand that each guy on this team has a role," Matta said. "For Tony (Stockman) it may be shooting. I was happy to see him shoot four free throws the other night – it's something we've been on him about, getting to the free throw line. I think it's all part of the process of guys understanding their role on this team and doing it to the best of their ability."

Ohio State has struggled shooting free throws for the last year and a half. But it is starting to come around.

"You know, it's funny, we shot them well the night before the (Texas Tech) game, and game day," Matta said. "I felt comfortable going in that we were going to make them. Portland State, we go 14 for 17, which is phenomenal. I'm telling you, it is contagious. We just have to get the right guys up there early and set the tone for us."

Morehead State is a good team from the Ohio Valley Conference and Matta knows the Buckeyes cannot overlook the Eagles.

"I think they're well coached," he said. "We played them last year at Xavier. They're a team that shoots the ball very well, and (senior Chad) McKnight's a very good low post player, and their guards do a good job of running the team. They lost a lot from last year – they lost two great players – but Coach (Kyle) Macy does a tremendous job. They execute their offense well and they can score in transition and it's another great test for our team."

* Junior college transfer Je'Kel Foster has been a good addition for OSU. He's averaging 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. Beyond the numbers, Foster brings a lot of athleticism and energy to the floor.

"I'm playing all right," Foster said. "I'm just trying to find my role on this team and help us win ball games."

The inside-out game is working for Ohio State. If teams collapse on Dials, the 3-point shot is open and the Buckeyes have been knocking them down.

"Coach Matta told us to get the ball inside and let us feed off Terence and that's what we did," Foster said of the Texas Tech win. "So, once we got the defense to draw in on Terence, there were some good wide-open shots."

Foster and Dials have struck up a friendship and Foster says the big guy is getting the job done right now.

"He's playing big," Foster said. "He's rebounding the ball strong. Going up to the goal strong. He's playing good."

If you want the scouting report on Morehead State, Foster is not your man.

"I don't know anything about Morehead State," he said. "But it's very important that we've got four straight home games. I think we'll do good defending our floor. This will get us ready for the league and I've very excited for league play to begin. I'm anxious to see it."

Foster had a lot of schools to choose from coming out of Chipola Junior College, but the Buckeyes were obviously the best fit for him.

"I considered Washington State, Oklahoma, Illinois State, Minnesota and Nebraska," Foster said. "It was pretty close. It came down to the end. Since I was playing in a national junior college tournament, I didn't have much time to take my visits. But I took my visit here and liked it."

* Senior guard Tony Stockman just keeps on ticking. He leads the Buckeyes in scoring and steals, averaging 15.6 points and two steals per game.

Stockman was happy to see OSU finally pull out a tight game on the road.

"Yeah, I think it's a good win for us, because the other times we were put in that situation, we didn't get the win," he said. "So, I think we're learning how to win in situations like that and I think that's good for us. People made shots and we executed our plays and did the things we're supposed to do. Got stops in the last few minutes and things like that. So, I think we're learning to win and we have more confidence that we can win the close ones."

Stockman admits it was a little extra special beating Bob Knight.

"I think just because of his status, and the kind of coach he is, and the teams that he's had before," Stockman said. "So, I think that's what gives you the satisfaction – that's he's a great coach and he's had great teams and you know they're going to be a great team, playing hard and smart and stuff like that. So, I think that's the satisfaction you get from it."

Stockman is never afraid to shoot, but says his confidence is at an all-time high.

"I just have confidence in my game and scoring and stuff like that," he said. "And I think that's what happened in (the Texas Tech) game. I had the confidence to take those shots and knock them down."

The 3-point shot has been the Buckeyes' calling card this year. And it's not just Stockman, several players can knock down the deep ball.

"Yeah, we get a lot of shots up in practice," Stockman said. "We work on those. It doesn't just come. We practice those and I think everybody is starting to hit shots at the right time."

Having Dials in the paint definitely helps the situation, according to Stockman.

"He's down there by himself, but if it's one-on-one, he's going to score," Stockman said. "So, they have to help down and it allows us to move around and get open and he finds us."

Stockman says a 3-pointer boosts a team's momentum, much like a dunk.

"I think it is pretty close to a dunk, for those of us that can't dunk," he said. "I think that's how we take it and we all get pretty excited about it."

Stockman was asked for his thoughts on Morehead State.

"We've got a four game home stretch right here that starts with this game and we want to make sure we take care of business and win the games that we can win," he said. "We just want to make sure we keep playing and get better for the Big Ten. There's some stuff we've got to take care of before we get to the Big Ten. But, Coach (Matta) is on us. He's making sure that we're staying focused on these games coming up."

* Junior swingman J.J. Sullinger is third on the team in scoring (11.2) and rebounding (4.9). He is playing well and is beginning to mature as a basketball player. Less flash, more production.

"I think so," Sullinger said. "I've just been really concentrating on my jump shooting abilities and just rebounding the basketball, and I think I've been doing an OK job of doing that. But, you can always get better. So, until I make every shot man, I can do a lot better."

No, the Buckeyes aren't playing for an NCAA Tournament bid this year, but Sullinger says the team still has a lot to play for.

"We're real excited about this year," Sullinger said. "We're 7-2 and we're happy with where we are, but we're not at all complacent. We know we can up the bar a little bit. So, that's all we're trying to do. We're just trying to get better every day so we can be the best team we can be."

Sullinger enjoyed facing and beating Knight last Thursday.

"Anytime you get a chance to play against a coach like that with so much tradition of winning, he's a winner," Sullinger said. "He's the ultimate winner. Coach Knight, he's a no-nonsense kind of guy. Some of the things I was hearing him say to his players… I was shocked sometimes. But, not really shocked, I was just like, ‘The rumors are true,' you know what I mean? But, no, he did a pretty good job, and it was a good win for us."

It would have been Sullinger and his teammates that Knight would have been yelling at if he landed the OSU job last summer.

"Oh man, you ain't lying," Sullinger said. "And some of those things he was saying, I would've had to put my foot in my mouth. You know what I'm saying?"

Sullinger noticed Knight as soon as he stepped out on the floor.

"When he first walked out, I noticed how he walked out, and I just thought, ‘Man, he looks like the president with the white hair, perfect shape, all that.' So, that's the one thing I noticed. But after that, it was all about business. It was all about Ohio State beating Texas Tech."

* Dials has played especially well the last two games. He seems to be stronger with the basketball and is playing with more purpose. The 6-9 center is second on the team in scoring (12.8) and leads the team in rebounding (7.3).

"I've had a lot of ups and downs," Dials said. "But right now, I'm riding on a high. Hopefully I can continue to play the way I've been playing. It starts with practice and I've been practicing real hard and it's been carrying over to the games."

Dials likes seeing all of these 3-pointers go in. He knows teams are concentrating on stopping him, which frees up the perimeter shooters.

"Especially when we have an opponent down, hitting a three just puts them away," Dials said. "I mean, the energy goes down a lot and the crowd gets into it. It's the same way with a dunk. When I get a dunk, or J.J., or anybody here that gets a dunk, the crowd gets into it and it just helps us out a lot."

Dials says he's worked hard on his shooting. But has he been tempted to launch one from beyond the 3-point line?

"I thought about it, but I want to play, and I don't think Coach Matta would like that too much. So, I'm trying to keep my playing time," he said with a laugh.

The Big Ten season is right around the corner, but Dials says the team is not looking ahead.

"We just have to take care of business," he said. "We've been doing this all season, just taking one game at a time. Right now, it's Morehead State, and that's what we're looking at right now, trying to become 8-2. That's the main focus right now. It's going to be big. We have a big stretch coming up here at home and it's important to take care of home court before we go on the road. So, that's what we're trying to take care of right now."

Dials thinks OSU is beginning to show how good of a team it can be.

"When we're clicking on all cylinders, we're a hard team to stop," he said. "And right now, we're starting to get confident with the way our offense is going. And the way our guards are shooting, it's going to be hard for teams to stop us. I just have to do my part and be strong and aggressive down low."

Dials says he is playing better, simply because he is practicing better.

"It started with practice," he said. "Coach (Matta) sat me down and said, ‘You have to practice a little harder for it to carry over into the games,' and that's what I've been doing. Just trying to practice real hard and it's been carrying over into the games. And that's the kind of recipe that I want to continue to have."

Dials did not get any extra satisfaction from beating Knight last Thursday.

"I think more the gratification was getting the big win on the road," he said. "I told some people earlier that it didn't matter who was coaching. It could have been anybody. I just wanted to get a big road win, and (Texas Tech is) a tournament-bound team and that was a quality win for us."

* Notables: Ohio State and Morehead State have met twice previously with the Buckeyes winning both meetings. The series began four years ago on Dec. 16, 2000, when the Eagles dropped a 93-62 contest in Columbus. The teams met again Dec. 14, 2002, with the Buckeyes coming away with a 74-60 victory in Columbus. … Ohio Valley Conference teams are looking for win No. 1 vs. Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 15-0 all time vs. OVC squads. Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech are both 0-3 against the Buckeyes. Eastern Illinois, Morehead State and Tennessee State are all 0-2 with Murray State, Samford and Tennessee Martin all 0-1. The Buckeyes have never met Austin Peay, Jacksonville State or Southeast Missouri State.

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