OSU Prepares for UNH; Bids Farewell to Billings

The Ohio State men's basketball team will host New Hampshire Tuesday. However, the big news of the day was the impending transfer of junior guard Ricardo Billings. We have comments from head coach Thad Matta, Terence Dials and J.J. Sullinger.

Ohio State (9-2) hosts New Hampshire (4-5) Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Value City Arena.

The Buckeyes defeated Mercer 102-77 on Dec. 22, then had three days off before getting back at it Sunday.

"We've came back and I think we've been sharp," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "(Sunday) we went twice and I thought guys were really attentive. We just wanted to get them out and get back to doing what we're doing. Trying to make it as competitive as it can and get guys back in the flow of playing and they've responded well."

New Hampshire began the season 4-1, but the Wildcats have dropped four straight. Matta was asked what the Buckeyes can get out of a game like this.

"I think continuing to build our defense," he said. "Continuing to take the lapses out defensively.

"Offensively, trying to sharpen up what we do. Taking better care of the basketball. The other night, we had 18 turnovers, which is too many. Some of them were unforced. And continuing to look at things that we have to do."

Junior center Terence Dials was named the Big Ten's Player of the Week for the second consecutive week. He is now averaging 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

"I think that's a tribute to Terence and the hard work he's put in," Matta said. "He's starting to see the benefits. As a coach, that's what you're always looking for in a kid. You want to see him busting his tail every day. Not that I'm into the awards individually or anything like that, but I think it is a great honor for this team to have somebody to be named the Big Ten Player of the Week two weeks in a row."

The Buckeyes have just two games left before Big Ten season begins. After New Hampshire heads back home, St. Joseph's will come to Columbus for a New Year's Eve tilt.

"Well, they're huge for us," Matta said of the next two games. "I think they are both great opportunities for this team to continue to get better, and obviously with what lies ahead (the Big Ten season), we need to get much better quickly."

Matta will never take an opponent lightly and he believes New Hampshire is a decent team.

"I think they are a skilled basketball team and they play really hard," he said. "They've got guys at all positions that can do certain things. They've got drivers, they've got guys that can catch and shoot the basketball, and they've got a guy that can score in the post.

"Defensively, they mix it up a little bit. They're a team that gets out in transition and tries to run. I think, once again, this is a team that's a big personnel game. Knowing who and what they can do."

But Matta has to be looking ahead to the Big Ten slate, right? Well, maybe not.

"I don't want to think about it," he said with a laugh. "I've always been that way. It's one day at a time and my focus is to get this team playing better basketball."

* As for Dials, it was just three weeks ago he told reporters that he was just trying to improve and find his role on the team. But now, no one in the conference is playing as well as him.

"Yeah, but it's still the same situation for me," Dials said. "I'm still trying to improve. I've got a lot of things to work on, but it's getting there. People are starting to recognize what I'm doing."

What exactly is Dials doing differently?

"Staying aggressive and making sure I try and draw more fouls," he said. "I was going away from the contact early on. Now, I'm trying to draw the foul and get to the foul line. Hopefully my free throw percentage goes up a little bit."

Dials is currently shooting 60.1 percent from the stripe.

Ohio State's coaching staff is trying to mold Dials much in the same way Matta molded David West at Xavier. The 6-10 West was a first-team All-American in 2002-03 for the Musketeers and was the 18th overall selection in the 2003 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

"Yeah, definitely," Dials said. "That's Coach Matta's protégé. He loves David West and David West was a great player at Xavier. It's similar to what I'm trying to do. Just trying to make a stamp on what I'm doing at Ohio State and try to be a great player in my own right.

"Actually, I used to watch all of (Xavier's) games when they were on TV because I liked the way he played. I thought maybe I could play like him one day. He started moving out a little bit and doing a lot of different things, so hopefully when I get a little older I can do that as well."

Although Ohio State is playing well right now, Dials, the team captain, knows they still have a lot of work to do.

"Our defensive intensity has let down a little bit," Dials said. "Other teams are starting to shoot a little higher percentages right now and (Matta) wants to get that down in the lower 30's again. So, I think that's our main focus right now is just to make sure we stay focused on defense and try and lower their percentage and win the rebounding war again, as we have the last couple of games."

The Big Ten season is right around the corner, but Dials says the team is not overlooking New Hampshire.

"We want to go into Illinois 11-2," Dials said. "That's the goal and it starts with this one here tomorrow. So, as long as we take care of these games, we'll see how we'll do on the road in the Big Ten."

Dials watches a lot of basketball on television and keeps close tabs on the other Big Ten schools.

"Well, pretty much the top teams are still handling their business right now," Dials said. "You know, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois obviously. They're just taking care of business and we're just hoping to stay with the pack right now and hopefully we can sneak up on people."

Another Buckeye that is playing well is junior swingman J.J. Sullinger. He is third on the team in scoring (11.9) second in rebounding (5.3) and is shooting 64 percent from 3-point range.

Sullinger is an athletic player and he knew right away that he would like playing for Matta.

"Coming in, I knew I was going to enjoy Coach Matta and his tempo," Sullinger said. "I've always played like that; it's always been my thing. So, we're just trying to get better as a team. Just keep trying to improve and keep learning the system and I think it's starting to work. I think we're starting to gel a little bit."

Sullinger says the Buckeyes' pinpoint 3-point shooting has a lot to do with Dials. Defenses are collapsing trying to contain Dials, leaving OSU's gunners open on the perimeter.

"Terence is playing really well," Sullinger said. "We're just trying to feed off him. He's definitely starting to become a big presence on the inside and that's what we need. It just opens it up for us more. So, keep on doing what he's doing."

Billings decides to transfer

It was announced Monday that junior guard Ricardo Billings has left the team and will transfer to another school.

Billings was a top prospect coming out of Detroit Rogers, but averaged only 5.5 minutes and 1.1 points per game this season.

"Basically, I understand why he wants to go," Matta said. "Ric wants to play basketball. I hate to see him go. He's one of the best kids I've ever coached. He's just a genuine person. But I fully understand why he wants to do it and we're going to support him in his decision and help him all we can to find the right place for him."

In college basketball, situations like this are quite common. When a new coach takes over, there seems to always be one or two players that do not fit into the new style.

"It really does (happen all the time)," Matta said. "I think for Ric, the big thing that made it hard for me is that he loved Ohio State; he loved being here. He just wants to play more. So, I support what he wants."

Billings let everyone on the team know of his decision in person. He did not release a statement, or make a phone call. He stood up like a man and told everyone that he would be transferring.

"Right after the Mercer game he said he wanted to leave," Matta said. "I think Ric had thought about it. We met about what he needed to do a little bit better. The guys that are playing ahead of him right now are playing some pretty good basketball."

Billings is not sure where he will transfer.

"No, we're going to meet with him and talk about that," Matta said. "We want to find him the best place for Ric Billings to be happy."

Maybe if Billings would have toughed it out this season, next year would have been better for him at OSU. With Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham graduating, there would have been a couple backcourt spots available in the rotation.

"We talked about it," Matta said. "But he's looking at it saying, ‘Ron (Lewis) and Sylvester (Mayes) are coming in.' He just may not get the minutes that he wants. Ric has been a tremendous team guy. He's never had any dissension or anything like that. That's what makes it so hard is that he's such a great kid."

And make no bones about it: junior college transfer Je'Kel Foster has played very well and stole a lot of minutes away from Billings. Also, the other guards on the team are playing well.

"I think what Je'Kel has brought to this team is that he's shot the ball extremely well," Matta said. "He may also be our best perimeter defender.

"You look and (Sullinger) is a guy that's shooting the ball better and I think his defense is continuing to get better. I think he played one of his better games the other night against Mercer. So, kind of at that position, we're getting good production.

"And Tony (Stockman) is obviously putting up good numbers.

"Ric just wants to play and that's the beauty for him is that we've got to find the right spot for him to do that."

Ohio State's players understand Billings' decision and they all wish him well.

"You know, when you're a competitor, you want to play and he wasn't getting all the playing time that he wanted and that he thought he deserved," Dials said. "So, my blessings are with him. I hope he finds a good situation to further his basketball career."

Junior guard Ugo Nwankwo left the team just before the Texas Tech game and no one has heard from him since. Therefore, the Buckeyes are now down to 11 players following Billings' departure.

"Great guys, but when you're playing basketball, it's competitive," Dials said. "Not seeing the floor in game action, it hurts. When you come to college to play, and you don't get to play, you have options to seek elsewhere and that's what (Billings) did and I'm glad for him."

Billings' best friend on the team was Sullinger, a player that transferred from Arkansas to Ohio State. Sullinger understood the decision, but that didn't make it easy.

"It's tough, man," Sullinger said. "The big thing about Ricardo leaving is that he just wanted to play. He wasn't getting that opportunity, he felt, and it's always tough when you're not playing enough, or as much as you think you should be.

"So, that was his thing, but he went about it the right way. He let everybody know right after the Mercer game. He's actually been contemplating it for a while, but he just didn't want to do it. But, it got to the point where he felt he had no choice. So, I think down the line, coaching staff and players wish Ricardo the best. He's always going to be one of us, as far as I'm concerned. I've talked to him a couple times about it and I just wish him the best."

Sullinger could feel it coming and tried to talk Billings out of it.

"I just told him to hang in there," Sullinger said. "For a while, the (coaching) transition was a little tough for him. It was showing, sometimes. But then, he started getting it together a little bit. But by then, the rotation was already there. Like I said before, it was just about playing time and he wanted to play and there's nothing wrong with that.

"When he first started talking to me about it, I said, ‘You need to talk to the coaches and see what you need to do to get on the floor.' I'm not sure if he did that or not.

"Ricardo was one of my real good friends and he still is and always will be. It was tough to see him go. You always try and tell him, ‘Come on man. Don't go.' But, I've been there before, so I understood what he was going through. But it's tough."

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