OSU To Host Minnesota

After a tough four-game stretch, Ohio State returns home Wednesday to host Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have been one of the Big Ten's cellar-dwellers the last few seasons, but are a much improved team this year. Here is a preview.

Minnesota is one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten and Ohio State will host the Golden Gophers (12-4, 2-1) Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Value City Arena.

The Buckeyes (12-5, 1-2) are coming off a 113-101 double-overtime loss at LSU Saturday and are glad to be back home.

"We've been through an incredible stretch," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Three of our last four games on the road. Minnesota is coming in and it's good to be back home, but you've got another great opponent. I think Minnesota is probably playing as well as, from what we've seen, maybe not an Illinois, but anybody else in the Big Ten. So, another great challenge for us.

"You come off the LSU loss and it's a quick turnaround with a day in between and you try and learn from that loss and figure out ways to come up with W's there down the stretch."

Minnesota is led by 6-5 junior G/F Vincent Grier – a junior college transfer – who is averaging 16.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.

Other starters for the Gophers include: 7-0 senior center Jeff Hagen (11.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg), 6-9 freshman forward Dan Coleman (9.1 ppg), 5-10 senior guard Aaron Robinson (8.4 ppg, 2.9 assists per game) and 6-4 senior guard Brent Lawson (7.4 ppg).

The two top players off the bench are: 6-0 freshman guard Rico Tucker (8.8 ppg) and 6-6 junior forward J'son Stamper (6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg).

"I think we match up pretty evenly," Matta said. "They play some skilled four man. They're big, they're strong. Got a great scorer (Grier). They're kind of like us. They like to get out and go, and very sound defensively. They execute their offense well. So, I think it will be a heck of a contest for us."

The Buckeyes left LSU feeling as though they let one get away.

"Yeah, we did," Matta said. "But I felt and I said this: I was nervous going down there after watching LSU beat South Carolina as badly as they did. I think LSU is as talented a team, with maybe the exception of Illinois, as we've played this year. I was happy with the way we fought back and got in the game and actually took the lead down the stretch there. But we've got to look at how we got the lead, how we let them get off to a great start – especially the start of the second half – and try and get those things corrected."

One bright spot for OSU continues to be its 3-point shooting. Overall, the Buckeyes are shooting 42 percent from downtown this season (163-389).

"I don't know if there's a team in the country that has shot the ball as much as we have in practice," Matta said. "Honestly, I hope that the practice we do in shooting helps us, and I think that it has. I think we're seeing the benefits of that.

"And then also, I think shot selection. Taking good shots and getting guys comfortable with the role that they have of stepping up and knocking those shots down. We need to be able to make some shots to have a chance to win the game. We go to Wisconsin and they weren't going down for us and therefore we put ourselves in a hole and couldn't get out of it."

Matta was asked if 12-5 is about where he expected his team to be at this point in the season.

"Honestly, I've never thought past tomorrow with this team," he said. "Really not knowing them and the late start that we got, the expectations I had for this team was honestly for us to do a little bit better each day and I think we are getting better. It kind of goes back to trying to get those 40 solid minutes. Being up 20-15 at Wisconsin and giving up a couple easy ones, or up with a minute to go at LSU in the first half and foul two times 25 feet from the basket and they make all free throws and we go down two at halftime. Those are the learning processes that we've got to continue to build.

"But, I hold true. I like this team, a great group of guys. We came back (Monday) and had a great practice. It's just we've got to make sure we keep doing the right things, practicing the right things and improve in the areas – not so much game-by-game, we're at that stage where we have to be a little bit more consumed with ourselves than with who we're playing."

The Buckeyes are clearly a better basketball team than last year and Matta deserves a lot of credit.

"When we got here, everybody was telling me what these guys can't do," Matta said. "That's why we opted to come in with a clean slate. I like the progress this team has made. I like the work ethic that they have, I like the attitude that they have. I know they are hurting after losses, but I think they are getting a taste that they have the ability to go on the road and play with these teams. They know that if we play good basketball, we've got a great chance to win every night and I want them to have that confidence."

Matta was asked to name the pleasant surprises on the team.

"Someone asked me this yesterday and I mean this across the board: I've really been pleased with everybody," he said. "Each guy, as I do as a coach, we all have areas we need to get better in. Trying to cut down on correcting the same mistake twice in a week is something that we're on them about right now. We can't move forward if we're still correcting what we're doing wrong right now, and guys have been good with that."

Je'Kel Foster and Ivan Harris are coming off career-high 20-point games against LSU. What can they do for an encore?

"Well, continue to move forward," Matta said. "Kel has been a steady influence on this team. I think that his play is a product of his hard work every day in practice and it's good to see him step up and do that.

"And with Ivan, I've said this, we want to get he and Syl (Matt Sylvester) playing well together on the same night. I think that makes us that much better.

"I couldn't be happier for those guys. Kel is always the first one to practice, last one to leave, that type of thing. So, you're happy for a guy like that."

With Harris and Sylvester trying to defend the post, power forwards like Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson and LSU's Brandon Bass have been killing the Buckeyes this season.

"Right," Matta said. "And (Illinois' Roger) Powell as well. It's a major league concern. As the players say, ‘We are who we are.' We've got to come up with something because I don't think we're in a position where we can try and outscore somebody. The old, ‘Hey, they can't guard us at the other end either.' We're not a good enough team to be able to do that."

Much has been made of the fact that Matta still has not officially signed his OSU contract.

His he holding off on signing it because of possible additional NCAA sanctions?

"No, no," he said. "I'm going to sign it as soon as I get it."

Perhaps Matta is waiting to see who the new athletic director will be before inking the contract?

"Nope," he said.

So, delaying the signing has nothing to do with any fears of added sanctions, or the athletic director situation, or anything else within the program?

"None whatsoever," Matta said. "I just don't have the contract yet. They're a little bit busy over there I think. I swear if I had it right now, I'd sign it."

Matta added: "I have signed something with Ohio State," just not the official contract.

Notes: Junior center Terence Dials continues to lead OSU in scoring (16.1) and rebounding (7.9). … The Minnesota-Ohio State contest will be the Buckeyes' 50th game versus Big Ten foes at VCA. … Ohio State is 5-0 all-time against Minnesota at Value City Arena since the facility opened for the 1998-99 season. … The Buckeyes are 35-14 (.714) all-time vs. Big Ten opponents at VCA after the win over Iowa earlier his year. … Ohio State also is undefeated in VCA games vs. Purdue (4-0) and Northwestern (6-0). Ohio State is 4-1 vs. Penn State, and 3-1 vs. both Michigan and Illinois. The Buckeyes own 3-2 records vs. both Wisconsin and Indiana, are 2-3 vs. Michigan State and 2-4 against Iowa. … Northwestern and Michigan State do not travel to Columbus this year. … Ohio State is undefeated at home this year (10-0) and has just one losing season vs. Big Ten opponents to date, a 3-5 record a year ago. … Ohio State leads the all-time series with the Golden Gophers with 74 wins in 125 meetings. The Buckeyes are 46-17 in Columbus and 28-34 in Minneapolis. The Buckeyes have won the last three games in the overall series. The Golden Gophers last won in Columbus during the 1997 Big Ten season, a 73-67 victory at St. John Arena on Jan. 18.

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