The Buckeyes will be playing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the fifth consecutive year and are 1-3 thus far in the event. Ohio State first participated in the event during the 2001-02 season, a 64-50 win against N.C. State in Columbus. Ohio State then played Duke in Greensboro, N.C., in 2002, a 91-75 Blue Devils' victory. Georgia Tech traveled to Ohio State in 2004 and won 73-53. The Buckeyes traveled to Clemson a year ago and fell to the Tigers 80-73.
Ohio State (2-0) is coming off a 79-69 overtime win over Butler last Tuesday. The Buckeyes opened their season on Nov. 20 with an 81-52 romp over Chicago State.
The Hokies (5-1) played in the NABC Classic Nov. 10-13, where they defeated Radford (80-50) and Western Carolina (54-40), but lost to Bowling Green (72-71).
Virginia Tech has also defeated Mount St. Mary's (74-62), Marshall (71-54) and Morgan State (77-49).
Forward Deron Washington (6-7, So.) leads the Hokies with 15.2 points per game. He is followed by forward Coleman Collins (6-9, Jr.) with 15.0 points a game. Collins also is the team's leading rebounder with 6.5 a contest. Guard Zabian Dowdell (6-3, Jr.) is third in scoring with 14.3 points a game.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is concerned that Virginia Tech has played triple the amount of games as the Buckeyes in the early stages of the season.
"That is a major concern. I think that's something that is obviously an advantage for them," Matta said. "We've been following them since we knew they were on the schedule. The guards are very good. The kid Washington is really an active player as well. And Collins is a load inside and he can even step outside now. He is their leading scorer, leading rebounder. He's a very long, athletic forward. They've got a good team. They bring shooters in off the bench and guys that come in and screen and that sort of stuff. Matchup-wise, they've got big guards and we know that we're going to have to slow those guys down. They are talented."
The Big Ten has struggled mightily in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, losing each year the event has existed, including 7-2 last year. However, maybe this is the year it can turn things around. Matta gave his thoughts on the event and what it means to each conference.
"I think it's more of a perception," he said. "Each team looks at this game as a unique opponent. When you're done with the game, you then say, ‘Yeah, it was the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.' But when you're watching Duke and Memphis play the other night on TV and they're talking about how important the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is, you kind of laugh. But, for us at Ohio State, this is a big game for us because we've got a very, very good opponent coming in here and it's a unique opportunity early in the season for us to play a great team."
Matta would like to see OSU fans pack the Schottenstein Center on Monday. However, he was asked if he fears that fans might stay away since OSU is not playing a "big name" ACC school like Duke or North Carolina.
"These guys (Virginia Tech) beat Duke last year and they've got a lot of guys back from last year's team," Matta said. "But you hope that people look at this and know it's a great opponent. It's just like if their football team was coming in here."
Matta is tired of the museum atmosphere at the Schott. He knows it's time for the Buckeyes to start building more of a home court advantage.
"I think it is," he said. "And that's something that we're constantly trying to do is establish a home court advantage. You hope that this place has a little bounce to it (Monday) night considering the magnitude of this game."
Sophomore point guard Jamar Butler gave OSU a little bounce against Butler University with 16 points off the bench. Matta seems very pleased with the way Butler is playing.
"One of the biggest things he did the other night was lead the team," Matta said. "He came up with big steals. He ran and got the ball – he wanted the ball. And that's what you want you point guard to do. And you even saw it with some other guys. But I think Jamar is a perfect example of how hard he practices and you see the improvement. He's worked hard on shooting the ball and he's shot a good percentage in practice. He knew that was something he needed to get better at and he knew he had to improve his decision-making in creating more. He was safe with the ball as a freshman with a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but we want him to get a little more aggressive in running the team."
So, will Butler now be in the starting lineup? Did he force Matta's hand with his strong play against the Bulldogs?
"He may have, yeah," Matta said. "But honestly, as we go into (Sunday's) practice, I have not announced a starting lineup until game day shoot-around to see how guys are doing. As we came off the floor (Saturday) after practice, we met as a staff and said, ‘Hey, this guy is going to do this, this guy did that.' And now we can talk about them and bring them back in after hopefully another great practice."
Junior guard Ron Lewis – currently averaging 14.5 points per game – will be among the Buckeyes' leading scorers all season. He has a knack for getting to the basket and drawing fouls. But there are a few areas of Lewis' game that still need fine-tuning.
"I think that Ron has done a good job for us," Matta said. "The big thing with Ron is that we need him to cut down on his turnovers. But I think his defense is getting better, especially off the ball. He's had a couple lapses each game that we've got to get corrected. I told him, ‘Good thing my arms weren't 80 feet long in the game the other night.' But Ron wants to be a great player and I love his competitiveness."
Senior center Terence Dials is OSU's leading scorer at 17.5 points per game. He also averages 7.0 rebounds per game.
Many expected Dials to lead the team in scoring and rebounding this year. But 6-5 forward J.J. Sullinger is averaging an impressive 12.5 boards per game so far to lead the way. Yes, Sullinger is undersized for a power forward, but few can match his strength and jumping ability.
"Well, I think it shows James' athleticism, it shows his timing," Matta said. "He knows that's something he can do to help this team and I couldn't be happier with the way he's rebounding the basketball right now and we need that from him. He's a guy that I know has proven through the first two games that he can go get the basketball."
Another statistic that pleases Matta is senior guard Je'Kel Foster's 75 percent shooting clip from 3-point range (6 of 8).
"Yeah, if he keeps that going, that will be great," Matta said with a laugh. "I think Je'Kel has made some good shots and we've got to continue to get him to do that."
Foster is averaging 17 points per game and his coach can't say enough positive things about him.
"Je'Kel is a winner," Matta said. "He's won everywhere he's been. The thing you love about a guy like Je'Kel is that he's earned his stripes. I mean, last year, I asked him to come off the bench for the first 20 games. He never blinked. He did it. And then he got into the starting lineup for us and played well for us."
OSU-UC drought likely ending next year
Ohio State and Cincinnati have not played since the 1962 national championship game. But Matta announced the drought is expected to end next season when the two schools face off in the Wooden Tradition on Dec. 16, 2006, in Indianapolis.
"It looks like it's going to happen," Matta said. "I know that they announced it in Indianapolis. But nobody understands the complications with scheduling because we had another contract already signed to play on that day against Butler. I haven't talked to (Butler head coach ) Todd (Lickliter) about the game. But it's a great situation for Butler, because they are going to get Purdue on a neutral court. They're going to get paid to play the game and they normally wouldn't be able to play in the Wooden Tradition. Just look at (Saturday) and you had Xavier-Purdue, and NC State-Notre Dame. You look at the teams in the past and it's a great situation for Butler. So, I think they want to do it, but I haven't talked to Todd to say, ‘We're more than willing to do it from our part and push the (OSU-Butler) series back a year.' I think they will want to do it."
Matta thought his days of playing UC were over when he left Xavier to come to OSU.
"Yeah, it will be a little different being 100 miles apart, as opposed to two-and-a-half miles apart," he said. "But I think it would be a great test for us and a unique opportunity to play in the Wooden Tradition. I've been to the Wooden Tradition twice and it's an incredible event with Coach (John) Wooden speaking the night before and just having his presence around. It's really a special time."
Matta had no clue about the bad blood between OSU's and UC's basketball programs before arriving in Columbus.
"Honestly, I did not know Ohio State did not play Cincinnati for 40-some years until I got here," he said. "You would think the paths would have crossed at some point. But yeah, like I said, it will be a unique situation."