Don't be fooled by the name. Gardner-Webb (5-3) is a solid team that defeated Minnesota (73-72) and gave defending national champion North Carolina all it could handle in an 83-80 loss. Most recently, the Bulldogs played on Dec. 22 and defeated Western Carolina, 90-83 in overtime.
The No. 21 Buckeyes (8-0) are off to their best start since the 1990-91 season. They are coming off a 74-65 win over Tennessee State on Dec. 23.
Senior guard Je'Kel Foster leads OSU in scoring with 17.4 points per game. The 6-2 guard from Natchez, Miss., is connecting on 67.1 percent of his shots from the field to rate No. 6 nationally in field goal shooting percentage. He is the only guard listed among the top 26 players in the country in field goal shooting percentage. Foster also rates No. 3 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, knocking down 58.1 (25-43) percent from long range. Foster leads the Big Ten in both shooting categories and also is the league leader in steals (2.11).
"My teammates are giving me great confidence," Foster said. "They're telling me to shoot the ball and another plus that we have is everybody can shoot the ball. It's just been me that's been open the last few games and I've been knocking down shots."
Foster, who lit up Iowa State for a career-high 28 points on Dec. 17, was named National Player of the Week by the Sporting News for Dec. 11-17.
"It's a great honor, but with that, I'd rather win and see my teammates happy than get national player of the week," the ever-humble Foster said. "But I accept it, like anybody else would. It's a great honor.
"But what matters to me is winning. If that comes along with winning, I'll take it, but the main thing that matters to me is getting my teammates ready to win games."
Foster doesn't usually get to spend much time with his family, but this week is a little different.
"Actually my parents are up here now," he said. "They're going to watch the Gardner-Webb game and the LSU game. They've been watching every game on TV though. That's one of the good things about playing here is that all our games are on TV (some via pay-per-view)."
The Buckeyes know they could be in for a tough test against Gardner-Webb. They have struggled against some low-profile non-conference teams this year at Value City Arena, but have escaped with victories each time.
The Bulldogs are led by 6-9 senior center Simon Conn from Melbourne, Australia. He is averaging 16 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Forward Brian Bender (6-6, Sr.) is averaging 13.8 points and 7.0 boards per game.
"They have veteran players," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "They're a team that was 18-14 last year and was picked to win their league. Very sound offensively, got guys that can really score the basketball. They do a good job of executing their half-court offense. They've got a little bit of everything. They've got a post game, they've got guys that can drive it, guys that can shoot the three. It's a very good test for us."
Matta wants to see his team ratchet up the intensity on defense against Gardner-Webb.
"I think that we've made progress, but I don't think our defense has been as good as it needs to be lately," Matta said. "I think it's a testament to practice and that stretch when we had to prepare for St. Joe's was one of the best defensive performances that we've had. We just started tailing off their at the end. And getting back (to practice) hopefully we can get that defensive awareness back and have a true appreciation for what we need to do in order to be successful."
The Buckeyes are ranked in both polls (No. 20 USA Today/Coaches) and Matta admits it's nice receiving some national respect.
"Yeah, I think so," he said. "At this stage, you're still a long way from where you want to be. I stay true to my form with these guys and I think they've worked hard. Are we the 20th-best team in the country? I don't know. I think that it's exciting for our program in general to have some positive light on it. You look at all the negativity that has surrounded it since we've been here and now something good has happened. So, for me and the players, I think that is exciting."
Senior forward J.J. Sullinger is averaging 10.9 points and leads OSU with 8.5 rebounds per game. He agrees with his coach that Gardner-Webb won't be a pushover.
"Gardner-Webb is a good basketball team," Sullinger said. "They can shoot it well. They're very poised and very well-coached. So, we're going to have to come out and match their intensity, match their toughness and play smart."
Center Terence Dials is averaging 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds for OSU. As he seems to do every year, the 6-9 Dials started the season somewhat slow, but seems to be kicking it into gear just before the Big Ten slate. He had a season-high 19 points in the win over Tennessee State.
As a fifth-year senior, Dials has been around the block and he knows you cannot overlook any opponent. The Buckeyes are hosting LSU on Dec. 31, but Dials says the team is not looking ahead.
"Gardner-Webb all the way," Dials said. "We haven't even begun to think about LSU. I think when teams do that, that's when they get snake-bit. Our coaches have done a good job of keeping us focused on Gardner-Webb because they're a good team and we can't overlook them. We don't want what happened to Minnesota to happen to us. Gardner-Webb beat a good Minnesota team at their place."
Dials has been impressed with the play of OSU junior guard Ron Lewis, who is averaging 12.0 points and 4.8 rebounds off the bench.
"Ron is doing a great job for us," Dials said. "He has embraced the sixth-man role and he gives us instant energy off the bench and a lot of scoring. He's been a great addition for us."