Riding a four-game winning streak headed into Saturday morning's game with Maryland-Baltimore County, the Ohio State men's basketball team is playing with a newfound sense of confidence that has translated into better play on the court. As it turns out, that confidence first came out of a meeting head coach Thad Matta had with his players following a game against Coppin State on Dec. 10.
At the time, the Buckeyes had dropped three of their last five games and were just 5-3 overall, having scored fewer than 50 points in three of their previous five games.
But Matta went to his personal library at his house – "It's bigger than the Worthington public library," he said – and dug out a book by Dan Millman, one of his favorite authors. He then read his team a passage addressing unrealistic expectations.
"Unrealistic expectations breed frustrated athletes," it said. "Normal expectations breed patience."
From there, it appears, the pressure was lifted from the Buckeyes.
"We had a lot of new guys and we all relaxed a little more," freshman guard Jon Diebler said. "We had a meeting with coach one day before practice and we all just let it out. We all sort of relaxed and weren't playing so timid out there on the floor afraid to make mistakes. Now we're just playing the game."
That much has been evident, as the Buckeyes have won three straight games since the meeting. In two of those games, they have scored 80 or more points, and the other victory came at the hands of Florida and helped avenge two losses to the Gators one season ago.
"We're getting along better," freshman center Kosta Koufos said. "We're having fun off the court, too. We're smiling more, which is great."
Asked when things started to turn around, Koufos said: "I think a couple weeks ago. Obviously not during the North Carolina game, but after that from here on out."
Following the team's 62-49 victory against the Gators on Dec. 22, the Buckeyes were off until Dec. 26, when they returned for an afternoon practice. Now they have one more non-conference game – this one against the Retrievers from the America East conference – before Big Ten play begins.
Now in its 22nd year of Division I play, UMBC has a program-best 8-4 record. Three of their wins are against teams from the Atlantic 10 Conference, but one of their losses is to Central Connecticut State – the team OSU waxed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
"They've got a very veteran basketball team," Matta said. "It's a game where you've got to have great awareness. You've got to know where guys are. They're going to come at you.
"On any given night, anybody on their team can have a huge night. That's why we've got to be as sound as we can."
The basketball team will also have a few familiar faces in attendance during the game. At halftime, the OSU football team will be recognized for their 11-1 regular season and berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
Tip-off is scheduled for 11 a.m. for the final home non-conference game of the season. After that, the Buckeyes will open conference play with a road game against Illinois before returning home to face Northwestern on Jan. 6.
"I hear a lot of excitement about the Big Ten season," Koufos said. "It's better competition, bigger guys. The Big Ten is known for the roughhouse league. I'm just looking forward to it."