Hoops Season Tips Off Sunday

Expectations are high for the 2005-06 Ohio State men's basketball team. The Buckeyes will get things rolling on Sunday when they welcome Division II Findlay to town for a 2 p.m. tip-off. We have comments from OSU head coach Thad Matta and senior forward Matt Sylvester.

The Ohio State men's basketball team opens its 2005-06 season with a preseason tilt against visiting Findlay on Sunday at 2 p.m.

The Buckeyes were 20-12 last season and expectations are high this year for second-year head coach Thad Matta and crew.

Findlay is coming off of a 30-4 season. The Oilers finished first in the final NCAA Division II poll and made their first ever trip to the Elite Eight. Findlay also won their fourth consecutive Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference South Division title last year.

Findlay's top player is senior point guard Dustin Pfeifer from Washington Court House. He was a first-team all-league performer last season.

Matta is not concerned about the final score of Sunday's game. He just wants to see his players improve and take that next step.

"I've always said this: you look at exhibition games as glorified practices," Matta said. "I want to see our intensity on defense. I think getting guys to play together and take care of the ball and share the ball offensively. And then defensively, hopefully we'll be able to keep some guys in front of us and challenge shots."

The Buckeyes only have 10 scholarship players on the roster this year, which makes for some very intense practices.

"Yeah, that's the beauty is that there's nowhere to hide at practice," Matta said. "As the intensity or competitiveness rises in practice, if you don't step up, you're going to stick out like a sore thumb. So, I think that's been an advantageous thing."

Freshman forward Brayden Bell is probably the "10th man" right now, but Matta says he is improving daily.

"He's doing well," he said. "Being the only freshman, and I've said this before, he's being taught a 500-level course and he's had no prerequisites. And I give him credit because I think, the coaches, we've spent a lot of time with him off the court explaining things. He thought – in our terminology – a down screen was a back screen. So, those are type of things that you take for granted as a coach and we've got to do a good job of coaching. But I think he's getting himself in what I consider college shape and getting a better understanding. But I think being guarded by veteran players and having to guard veteran players has hopefully brought him along quicker."

Other than senior center Terence Dials, everyone on the roster is being asked to play more than one position.

"No question," Matta said. "And that's what we're probably not as far along with maybe an offensive system because of that right there and getting guys to understand a couple different spots and what that position entails.

"We're still at that stage of trying to find who is best at what spots and what a guy's strengths are and what positions he can defend and those types of things."

Matta was pleased with how his players responded to the offseason conditioning program. He feels the Buckeyes are in much better physical condition this season.

"I think one of the biggest differences – and I think we'll see Sunday – but hopefully we're in better shape (than last year)," he said. "And therefore, if we're in better shape, you don't have to spend as much time throughout the course of a practice. Maybe you can work some different things – specifics – as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, we've got to get up and down and get guys in game shape.'"

With only 10 players, that means there is plenty of room to add walk-ons. Matta would like to add a few players, simply to get more bodies on the floor at practice.

"We're in the process," he said. "We've had no walk-ons practice with us, but we are looking into that. I think we're still in the paperwork stages and that sort of thing."

Matta has still not settled on a starting lineup. He probably has a good idea, but isn't ready to name the five.

"Honestly, I don't know exactly what we're going to do on Sunday," Matta said. "And I like that because they (OSU's players) don't know what we're going to do. It makes (Friday and Saturday) I think even more competitive."

When will he decide?

"Probably right before tip-off, to make sure warm-ups are good," Matta quipped. Matta was asked if he's concerned that Findlay will be out to make a statement on Sunday.

"No," he replied. "My thing is, as I look at our team, we have a long way to go. And with two weeks and two days before we play our opener, there's a lot of areas we still need to improve in and what I don't want to do is change practice or something like that to attempt to win an exhibition game when I know deep down what we're going to face in the regular season."

A few national publications are giving the 2005-06 Buckeyes a lot of respect. In fact, CBS Sportsline picked OSU to win the Big Ten and selected Dials as the conference's preseason player of the year.

"Was that my dad? No, I didn't see that," Matta joked. "I honestly don't pay attention to it. I'm worried about 10 guys and getting them ready to play. And I know how difficult a road we have ahead of us. Yeah, it's the least of my concerns."

* Senior forward Matt Sylvester will likely log most of his minutes at the four spot this year. Therefore, he wanted to bulk up a little bit in the offseason.

"Probably put on seven or eight pounds of good weight," Sylvester said. "Took some of that weight out of my gut and toned up a little bit. I'm at about 228."

Sylvester thinks the Findlay game will be a good measuring stick for the Buckeyes.

"I think it's going to be a good test for us," he said. "It's kind of hard to judge where you are in practice just going against yourself on a daily basis. But we want to go out and we want to win it convincingly and play as well as we can and hopefully give the fans a sneak peek of what is to come.

"Some of these guys on Findlay might have been guys who didn't get recruited by Ohio State. And whether they have a chip on their shoulder, I don't know. But I know that they are going to come out and play as hard as they can and try and steal one on our home floor. Our new home floor."

Sylvester was asked what OSU's coaches have been stressing to the players in practice.

"They just want us to play as hard as we can," he said. "It's been the same thing with them for a long time now. It's been defense and rebounding. They're confident that we have the offense to score on anybody. But as far as defense and rebounding, those are the two topics of interest right now."

Sylvester says there is no comparison between the 2004-05 Buckeyes, and this year's version.

"Like I've been saying to a lot of people, I think at this point of the season right now, we're a lot better than we were this time last year," he said. "And last year we were a 20-win team. So, I think that's something to build on."

Sylvester thinks that Bell is struggling a little bit, but thinks he will develop into a good player.

"Brayden is going through some freshmen things that a lot of freshmen do," Sylvester said. "A lot of things are new to him. His learning curve is a lot different right now. A lot of the guys are just refreshing really. But he's learning. He has to learn double what everyone else is learning. But I think Brayden has a chance to be a really good player in the future. I really do."

Sylvester enjoys playing on a roster with just 10 scholarship players. He – along with most of his teammates – get a chance to play multiple positions.

"Yeah, I do like it," Sylvester said. "It's interesting because you've got 10 guys, but all 10 guys are pretty good and can all really play. I think it's going to really force the coaches to play some different-type of lineups, which I think would be good. Give us some new looks on a certain four minutes of the game, or whatnot."

Chris Jent, a former OSU and NBA player, is helping out at OSU this year as a student assistant. Jent spent part of last season at the interim head coach of the NBA's Orlando Magic.

The 6-7 Jent is allowed to practice with the team and often matches up with the 6-7 Sylvester.

"Yeah, I tell you what, that guy plays harder … I don't know how old he is, but at his age he plays harder than anyone I've ever seen," Sylvester said. "I'm convinced he could still be making money playing the game. He really good. He's great."

Sylvester is a little too young to remember Jent's playing days at OSU (1988-92).

"I don't remember seeing Chris play, but just from seeing him in practice, I can imagine what he was like," Sylvester said. "He's unbelievable. We're really lucky to have him. "I wish I played as hard as Chris. If I played as hard as Chris, I might be an All-American."

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