Buckeyes Ready For Showdown At UNC

For an early season matchup, it doesn't get much better than this. Ohio State and North Carolina will clash in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, N.C. The game features a pair of top-seven teams and the top two recruiting classes in the country. We have comments from OSU head coach Thad Matta and junior guard Jamar Butler

Ohio State is ranked No. 1 for the first time in the history of the Coaches Poll and North Carolina will look to make it a brief stint on top when the teams face off Wednesday in Chapel Hill, N.C. (9 p.m./ESPN).

The Buckeyes (6-0), ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press, are still expected to be without freshman center Greg Oden against the Tar Heels (4-1), who are ranked No. 7 by the AP and No. 6 in the Coaches Poll.

It will be a battle that features the top two recruiting classes in the country. Fans might look back on this fact with curiosity in years, but Carolina's class was widely ranked No. 1 and OSU's was ranked No. 2 by recruiting analysts. Thus far, it looks like the classes are fairly even – and that's without possibly the best player in the nation, Oden, even suiting up for the Buckeyes.

But if there is one way to prove that OSU's 2006 recruiting class is better that UNC's, it would be to beat the Tar Heels on their home floor with Oden dressed in street clothes on the Buckeyes' bench.

But it won't be an easy task and these teams actually have much more to offer than their ballyhooed recruiting classes.

North Carolina is led by sophomore center Tyler Hansbrough (6-9, 245) who is averaging 20.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Hansbrough was a freshman All-American last year when he averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds. He is a gritty player that finds the way to get the job done offensively with a variety of post moves. He is also a tough rebounder.

The other veteran that UNC counts on is senior forward Reyshawn Terry (6-8, 230). He is averaging 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds this year, but his numbers are down from last year (14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds).

The marquee player of UNC's recruiting class is freshman forward Brandan Wright (6-9, 205) who is averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. The other two emerging stars are freshmen guards Wayne Ellington (12.2 ppg) and Ty Lawson (10.6 ppg, 3.2 apg).

North Carolina's loss came at the hands of Gonzaga, 82-74. The Tar Heels rebounded with a 101-87 win at Tennessee on Nov. 24 in their best game of the young season.

Ohio State's leading scorer is freshman guard Daequan Cook (17.8 ppg). Cook has been the star of the young season and he is also averaging 7.0 rebounds per outing, second-best on the team behind junior forward Othello Hunter (7.2).

Senior guard Ron Lewis has also been productive with averages of 17.0 points and 5.0 rebounds.

But OSU head coach Thad Matta still has to shake his head when reminded that his young team is ranked No. 1 in one of the major polls. He was asked if he thinks the lofty ranking is deserved.

"No, I think it's flattering and all that," he said. "You know how us coaches' minds work. ‘Are they trying to set you up?' I think our players and our staff have a great understanding of it is November and we are trying to get to March. Somebody has to be ranked number one, and I think the biggest thing for us … I look at this as a sign. Where we were three years ago, I think we were probably 330th in college basketball. The vision being put forth for this program, for the university, etc. I think it's great for that. But, number one, our program is not where we want it to be, and number two, we're still playing without Greg Oden."

Matta discussed the fact that OSU has the rare distinction of being ranked No. 1 in basketball and football at the same time.

"I think that's a unique situation," he said. "Football has obviously proven their worth staying atop the polls the whole year long. That is incredible feat in my mind. In my opinion it speaks great volumes about The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, the state of Ohio, and just the possibilities this athletic department has. Quite honestly the women aren't too far from number one right now as well (No. 6 in both polls).

"But our mindset is we still have a long way to go. If this was late February I might not be downplaying it as much, but right now I know what lies ahead of us. The one thing I keep in my back pocket is we don't have a complete team yet."

Matta believes the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with Carolina will be a good test for his team.

"I think it is," he said. "I think with who they have and how many they have, I think is a great test. You can go back to a game like this and draw a lot of references throughout the year good and bad. I don't want to say it is an indicator because we don't have our complete team yet, but I think it's a great challenge for these guys to go down there and play without our center."

Matta was asked to talk more about the Tar Heels and what challenges they present for the Buckeyes.

"I could sit here and talk about the concerns that North Carolina poses forever," he said. "I like our guys. I like their mindset. They know they have a great challenge. They know this is a rare opportunity to go and play a team as talented as North Carolina. As a coach, I'm still in that stage where I want to see how we handle adversity, how we handle the situation, how we handle a team going on a run and 20,000 people going crazy. Do we have the composure to withstand it? I think that will be the thing I'm looking at. As a coach you see the journey and where we are going as opposed to where we are right now."

And although OSU will play three freshmen a lot on Wednesday, Matta thinks they are somewhat battle-tested due to all the big games they played at the high school level.

"Yeah I think they are as prepared as they can be for this," Matta said. "Now is that enough? We will find out. I think if you look at Greg, Mike (Conley) and Daequan, every time they took the floor it was a sold out show. For those guys every time they took the court, the target was on them. They were going to get the other teams best preparation, their best shot, everyone was going to play above what they were capable of just because of that.

"But, you can't simulate crowd noise. You can't simulate what is actually like to go on the road. For these guys, their first road trip is in Chapel Hill, one of the best basketball programs of all time.

Matta hasn't been extremely pleased with OSU's defense thus far this season. He knows it will be a big part of Wednesday's showdown. Namely containing Hansbrough down low and limiting the Tar Heels' open looks on the perimeter.

"Our zone isn't where we want it to be right now," Matta said. "It is like a three-point shooting contest with nobody guarding them. I think right now our mindset is to do what we do, and hope that it is good enough. Man or zone, they are trying to pound the ball down low to Hansbrough. They will high-low you. We have seen them do well against both."

But the question everyone really wants to know is when Oden will finally make his debut for the Buckeyes. (One guess might be Dec. 16 against Cincinnati in his hometown of Indianapolis, but who knows.)

Matta insists that he really doesn't know when Oden will be back.

"I don't," he said. "I told (trainer) Vince (O'Brien) yesterday, ‘I'm ready for my surprise (laughing).' He said, ‘I don't have one.' It is just one of those things. I'm proud of the way our guys have adapted. I think it is making us better in the long run having to go through games like this."

To say that Oden is itching to get back would be a vast understatement. There were even rumblings that he urged the coaching staff to let him play against Youngstown State last week.

"He's down. He's down," Matta said. "When I say down – I don't mean down, but anxious. He is tired of watching his teammates play and not being able to contribute. He is tired of running wind sprints up and down the court with nobody else on the court. He is tired of meetings and going through preparation knowing he cannot play. He is getting eager, but he is a very intelligent kid and understands (why he needs to wait). He is 18-years-old. Every day I keep telling him, ‘Big picture.' He is patient, but he is young."

Butler looks to get it going

One of the keys to Ohio State's Big Ten championship last season was the strong play of guard Jamar Butler. He averaged 10.1 points, 4.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and shot 41.4 percent from three-point range. So far this year, the 6-2 junior guard is averaging 8.8 points, 5.7 assists, 2.2 rebounds and is shooting at a 36.8 clip from downtown.

But Butler's offensive numbers are sure to rebound eventually. Right now, the only thing on his mind is going to Chapel Hill and trying to pull out a victory.

"I had this game marked on my schedule last year," Butler said. "Just the chance to play in the Dean Dome, it's going to be fun. A lot of players, it's their dream to play there. It's a great environment for basketball and I can't wait to play."

Butler says that even without Oden, the Buckeyes' confidence is through the roof at this early stage of the season.

"This year we have the mindset that we can beat anybody," Butler said. "We are going to be hard to beat. The mindset from last year to this year is very different. We are a different team. We are way ahead of where we were last year and continuing to go the right direction."

As for the return of Oden, Butler is being patient and thinks the team has proven it can hold the fort down until he gets back.

Sure we would like him back, but we want whatever is best for him," Butler said. "I know he wants to get out there and play."

Butler is used to playing in hostile environments and he is looking forward to the challenge that the Dean Dome will present.

"I would compare it to MSU, Indiana, or Illinois – a tough environment," he said. "When you are playing a team like North Carolina on their home floor you are the underdog."

Butler thinks that the Tar Heels and Buckeyes match up very well and use similar styles.

"They like to run and we like to run," he said. "We play the same game. It should be a fun game to watch."


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