The Buckeyes have played exactly one Big Ten game in the last 13 days, and that was a tough 67-62 loss at Iowa last Saturday. OSU (15-3, 4-3 Big Ten) dusted off Florida A&M 95-53 in its final nonconference game of the regular season on Monday.
"It will be great to get back out there against a Big Ten team," said OSU guard Ron Lewis. "It's now February and we just have to buckle down and get some wins. This is when teams come together and some teams fall. We have to stay focused and keep playing as a team."
Ohio State had won eight of its last nine meetings against Minnesota prior to last season. But coach Dan Monson's Gophers swept the two-game series a year ago with a pair of tight wins – 60-56 in overtime at Columbus and 52-50 at Minneapolis.
"It fuels us a lot," Lewis said. "Coach emphasized that they beat us twice last year and they're better than us right now. We have to go out and beat them at their game."
OSU coach Thad Matta admitted that he raised Minnesota's success against the Buckeyes.
"This is something we went into the off-season and talked about," Matta said. "Between them and Wisconsin, five of our 12 losses came to two teams. They're a different team and we're a different team. I think you talk about it, but you know we're both different.
"You look at saying, as you're motivating your team, ‘We're not as good as Wisconsin' and ‘We're not as good as Minnesota,' we've got to get better. That's what you look at with your guys in the off-season."
The teams' records this season show two programs headed in opposite directions. While OSU is a game out of the Big Ten lead, Minnesota stands at 10-8 overall and 1-6 in Big Ten play. The Gophers lost their first six conference games, including a 64-62 home loss to Wisconsin and a 76-72 triple overtime loss at Iowa.
But Minnesota's season perked up last Sunday with a decisive 61-42 home win over Indiana.
"We can't take them lightly," Lewis said. "They won a big game against Indiana. We're not taking any team lightly in the Big Ten because they are competitive. I don't know if that win changes their season, but I know they will have a lot of confidence coming in here. We can't take them lightly. We have to play them like we would play any other team."
OSU forward J.J. Sullinger added, "We're excited. It's a big game for us. They got us twice last year. They're coming off a big win over Indiana. They are high on their horse. We just have to play with them. We're looking forward to the challenge.
"They're good. You can't judge them by their record. They have some talent. They have some good players and they play extremely hard. We never want to look at a team's record and say they're good or they're bad."
If the Buckeyes intend on contending for the conference championship, they know they must hold serve in their home games.
"I think our guys know they are a very good basketball team," Matta said. "They have the ultimate respect for them. They understand how good the Big Ten is. There are just no gifts in this league. You have to go get them."
The Gophers are led by 6-5 senior guard Vincent Grier, who averages 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
"Their game is rebounds and getting to the basket," Lewis said. "A lot of it is guarding Grier. We have to contain him."
Sullinger said he will be among a group of players charged with containing Grier, a first-team All-Big Ten pick a year ago when he torched OSU for 36 points and 22 rebounds in two games.
"I will be one of the guys on him," Sullinger said. "I think we'll have several guys on him. For the most part, we're going to try and keep fresh bodies on him and just try to limit him to easy baskets. If he gets going early, they're a great team. They can play with anybody. He's a marked man and he knows that. He's faced that before. We're not going to pitch a shutout, but as long as we keep him from easy baskets and getting easy touches we should be all right."
Senior guards Maurice Hargrow (14.4 ppg) and Adam Boone (9.8 ppg), sophomore center Spencer Tollackson (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and senior forward J'son Stamper (6.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) are also key contributors for the Gophers.
"They've got experience," Matta said. "Grier, obviously, was first-team All-Big Ten last year. He's a tremendous player. They've got depth and shown they will play a lot of guys. They are long and athletic. I just think they're a pretty good basketball team."
And, in terms of containing Grier, Matta said, "You have to do a great job of trying to slow him down. He is a great player. Having more quickness and athleticism this year should help us."
Live By The Three …
In Monday's win over Florida A&M, OSU attempted a school-record 36 three-pointers, making 13 for 36.1 percent. The Buckeyes took what the Rattlers were giving them as A&M packed it into a zone around OSU center Terence Dials.
Matta was happy with his team's ball movement in that win.
"I hope we understand a little bit more about shot preparation," he said. "I thought we took good shots here the other night. Hopefully, they will be a little bit more confident and step up and knock those down."
Sullinger turned some heads on Monday when he showed up wearing tights covering a good portion of his legs for the A&M game. The fashion change worked as Sullinger, who had hardly been an offensive factor in Big Ten play, matched his career high with 24 points.
"I looked online for some red ones so I could wear them on the road," Sullinger said. "We'll see (about the Minnesota game). I haven't made up my mind yet. They keep your legs warm. I'm old, man. I feel like I'm old anyway. Anything to keep my legs warm."
Matta joked about Sullinger's new look.
"If he plays like that, he could wear whatever he wants," the coach said. "I just hope it helps him and keeps his legs warmer or whatever it is.
"Each guy is different and I tell them that come game time I want them to feel right and play their best basketball. I don't get too much into it. Whatever it takes – within reason."
Matta said he had no clue Sullinger was breaking out the tights.
"I was giving them their last instructions and wondered to myself, ‘Why does he still have his sweatpants on?' " Matta said.
NCAA Case Drags On
Matta was in attendance in December when OSU was set to present its side in the NCAA infractions committee's case against the school. But the proceedings were delayed until this weekend in Chicago, and Matta did not bother making an appearance.
After all, Matta was not at Ohio State when the alleged violations – all focused on previous coach Jim O'Brien and assistant Paul Biancardi – took place.
"Honestly, I'm like numb to it," said Matta, whose team's postseason fate could be at stake. "I know there is not one thing I can do here to help anything or change anything. As hard as it is, because it has worn me down, you just keep reminding yourself, ‘Hey, I didn't do it. Two, there's nothing I can do to help or hurt the cause.'
"I was brought here to build this program. I like the direction we're putting it in right now."
The hearing was originally set for Feb. 1, but there was another postponement.
"When they moved that thing back the other day, I wasn't very happy and I left," he said.
* The Buckeyes are 26-3 overall at home under Matta.
* OSU is 102-23 in eight seasons at VCA, including 11-1 this season and 42-17 in Big Ten play.
* OSU is 5-1 against Minnesota in VCA.
* Dials and Foster are tied for the OSU lead in scoring at 14.1 points per game. Lewis (12.9 ppg) and Sullinger (10.3 ppg) are next. Dials also leads OSU in rebounding at 7.2 per game.
* This will be Dials' sixth career game against Minnesota. He averages 12.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Sullinger has averaged 10.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in four career games against Minnesota.