The Buckeyes (10-2) are coming off their latest double-digit victory, a 77-59 win over New Hampshire Tuesday. However, OSU was only up by seven at halftime over the Wildcats and head coach Thad Matta was not happy with the performance.
"Just mentally, I don't think we were as sharp as we needed to be," Matta said. "Hopefully, through film and practice, we've been able to get that out of our system. We know that we've got a very good, a very talented basketball team coming in here tomorrow night."
Matta knows St. Joe's well from his three years as the head coach at Xavier. The two schools are each members of the Atlantic 10 Conference. In fact, the Hawks were the undefeated No. 1 team in the nation last year until Xavier blew them out in the A-10 Tournament.
Matta has preached to his players what to expect from St. Joseph's (3-5).
"I think we have to have an understanding that they are a team that executes very well," Matta said. "They're going to play great pressure defense. Just being familiar with their guys, I think gives us… it's a little bit different than playing a team that we don't know anything about. Obviously, I had some great battles against St. Joe's the last three years."
This is obviously not the same St. Joseph's team that took the college basketball world by storm last year. Guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West were each first round picks in the 2004 NBA Draft. Nelson went 20th overall to the Denver Nuggets (but was traded to the Orlando Magic) and West followed at No. 24 overall to the Boston Celtics.
"I think obviously the big difference is not having Jameer Nelson and Delonte West," Matta said. "But, they are a team that has great specialty players. They're a veteran team. Anytime you go 28-0 or whatever it was, guys are accustomed to being successful."
Matta has a tremendous amount of respect for St. Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli.
"No question," Matta said. "I view Coach Martelli… he is a guy that loves the game of basketball and does everything the right way. In the coaches' meetings that we had in the Atlantic 10, I mean, this guy was passionate about the league. It wasn't like, ‘How to I get myself.' It was, he's in it for everybody.
"And that was a great lesson for me, coming in as a young coach in that league and looking at a guy that is one of the best coaches in the country and saying, ‘My gosh, this is about the game of basketball, not about Phil Martelli.' And I think that speaks volumes of who he is and what he stands for."
Matta says playing on New Year's Eve won't be anything special for him.
"No, honestly, this will be my third or fourth straight year of playing on New Year's Eve," he said. "You know, one of the things about being a basketball coach, the holidays, you really don't know that they're going on. The most important thing every day is the game."
St. Joseph's is off to an uncharacteristically poor start. However, that doesn't mean the Hawks are incapable of knocking off the Buckeyes Friday. They still have plenty of talent on their roster.
Their leading scorer is 6-5 junior G/F Chet Stachitas, who is averaging 14.4 points per game. He was a key player off the bench last season.
Returning starter Pat Carroll, a 6-5 senior G/F, is second on the team with 13.1 points per game.
The other key player for St. Joseph's is 6-11 junior center Dwayne Jones. He is averaging 11.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
Ohio State center Terence Dials has played against a lot of undersized post players this season, but Matta thinks he is looking forward to going up against someone bigger.
"I think he is," Matta said. "It should be a good matchup. Jones is a good player and Terence has been playing excellent for us."
There is no doubt about that. Dials leads Ohio State in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (8.3). But what has been the secret to his success? What buttons has Matta pushed to suddenly get this much production out of Dials?
"Right now, I think Terence is seeing the benefits of his hard work and really looking forward to the challenges every time he steps on the court," Matta said. "I think that he's working extremely hard. I think that he's playing hard. The biggest key to be is that he's finally got himself in good shape, and obviously we're going to stay on him until the end of the season to be in even better shape. But, I think that he's getting his legs and his stamina is up and he's able to withstand the up and down style that the game lends itself to."
Dials always moved fairly well for a player his size. But Matta came to him soon after he was hired and told him that he needed to lose about 10 pounds or so.
"Yeah, I felt for him to be effective, he needed to trim up and get himself, cardio-wise, able to compete at his highest level," Matta said. "And I think he's taken it to heart and has done that."
Dials agrees with his coach. He played at 250 pounds last year, but is down to 240 this season and can feel the difference.
"Yeah, Coach (Matta) wanted me to take off a little weight so I would move a little bit better and stay conditioned," Dials said. "When you're in better condition, you can play the whole game. You can do a little bit better on offense and defense. I think it's been showing that I've been in better shape and been able to be more productive, and I think that's a tribute to being in shape and having Coach Matta get on me every day about getting in shape."
Dials knows that St. Joseph's is a better team than its record indicates.
"On paper, they look pretty good," he said. "They have a couple guys – Pat Carroll can shoot it, and Dwayne Jones is good inside – so it's going to be a tough game for us tomorrow."
Matta has told his players what to expect from the Hawks.
"He's said that they play hard," Dials said. "They play hard and run their sets real well. We just have to play hard too. And we can't let them catch and shoot, because when they do that, they're a dangerous team."
Like Matta, Dials doesn't really care that the game is on New Year's Eve.
"Just another game right now," he said. "We're just trying to get another win."
Dials said the Buckeyes have been focusing on a few specific things in practice.
"Defensive intensity," he said. "Making sure that we don't give up easy buckets. And taking care of the ball. Those are the main things we're stressing right now."
Dials has two straight double-doubles and three this season. He is playing the best ball of his career and just wants to keep it going.
"I'm trying to," Dials said. "I'm just trying to stay consistent with my play. I don't want to be the player that's inconsistent. One time gets 25 and 10, and then the next night gets eight. So, what I'm trying to do is stay consistent and stay with my game plan and just stay aggressive."
Aggressiveness might be the most obvious turnaround in Dials' game. He has always been physical and willing to fight for tough rebounds, but in the past, he has been somewhat passive offensively. Now, he is taking the ball to the rim with authority.
"Yeah, I'm trying to," Dials said. "I'm trying to take it to the bucket a little bit harder and trying to draw more fouls and put some more pressure on the defense than I have in the past."
Dials is looking forward to banging with Jones Friday.
"Dwayne Jones – the one I'm going to be guarding – is a very good offensive rebounder," Dials said. "He's averaging almost six a game and that's where he gets a lot of his points. So, it's going to be really important for me to box him and make sure he doesn't get that easy bucket that he's been accustomed to getting this season.
"And he's also a shot blocker. So, I'm going to have to make sure I take my time. You know, throw a little pump fake here and there and make sure he's not blocking all my shots."
Matta always stresses the importance of defense and Dials thinks the Bucks are coming along well in that area.
"Since the beginning of the season, our defense has been much better and we've become a better team," Dials said. "But Coach (Matta) still harps on us that we're having defensive lapses sometimes. Most of the time it's good, but then we'll go through phases when we don't give a care about defense. We have to eliminate those, but overall, I think we're playing better defense."