Following the Buckeyes' 59-53 loss to Indiana on Feb. 10 that all but dashed any hopes the Buckeyes had of securing a third consecutive Big Ten crown, head coach Thad Matta was at a loss for words.
Seated in the postgame interview room, the coach found himself using phrases such as "I don't know" or "I have no idea" over and over again when trying to describe why OSU had been unable to pull off the upset of the Hoosiers. His message was clear: The Buckeyes did not play hard enough to pull out the victory, and Matta's posture reflected the status of a man who was tired of trying to figure out the reasons why that happened.
Anyone who has played competitive sports knows what that typically means the next time the team is together. But rather than light a fire under his team through the guise of practice, Matta chose an alternative option.
When the Buckeyes reassembled the day after the Indiana game, likely bracing for the worst, they were instead treated to a film session.
"He just said, ‘We're going to watch film,' " freshman guard Jon Diebler said. "After films, he said, ‘I want you to keep this bitter taste in your mouth and know how it feels and we'd better have a heck of a practice the next day.' "
Players were not made available following the team's Tuesday practice in preparation for Wednesday night's game at Northwestern (9 p.m., Big Ten Network), but Matta said he hoped his method of recourse left a powerful message with his players.
"I want to control us playing our best basketball," he said. "I want to take care of the basketball, I want to execute, move the ball, get our assist totals higher. We've got to be more efficient with the ball moving."
The decision to not practice Monday surprised the players, Diebler said.
"I think it caught everyone by surprise," he said. "I think a lot of people were looking forward to practice. We need to refuse to lose."
Now would be a good time for the Buckeyes to do just that. The game against the Wildcats – the cellar-dwellers within the conference with an 0-10 record in Big Ten play – is about as close as it comes to a game OSU simply should flat-out win. They follow up that contest with one against the Michigan Wolverines, the Big Ten's second-worst team with a 2-9 record.
From there, the schedule gets considerably more difficult. OSU's final five regular-season games will be against the four teams ahead of them in the conference – Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin – as well as the one team nipping at its heels in Minnesota.
Matta likes to keep his teams focused on the day-to-day without looking too far forward or in the past, but the loss to Indiana clearly had an effect on the Buckeyes. It marked just the fifth loss OSU has suffered at Value City Arena in Matta's four seasons.
Now they face a Northwestern team that is ranked third in the conference in steals thanks to a 1-3-1 zone defense that has frustrated opponents at times.
"Guys get their hands on balls in the passing lanes and we try to stress that," Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said. "Not too many teams play that defense and so teams aren't accustomed to it. It's a little different when they face it. You get maybe one or two days to prepare for it, so I think that causes most of the problem."
Matta and the players spoke of the importance of moving the ball quickly and with a purpose against the Wildcat defense rather than being as timid as they were against Indiana's zone defense.
But if Monday's practice is any indication, the mere nuts and bolts of what OSU needs to do to win will not be nearly as important as the effort behind them.
"We just watched film to leave that bitter taste in our mouth," freshman guard Evan Turner said. "He said we should have a heck of a practice today just because we should be anxious and ready to go and we should be ready on Wednesday."