Planning A Fun Return

After opening the season on a three-game winning streak, high expectations came grinding to a halt as Ohio State suffered a lopsided defeat to Texas A&M in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Now with a return trip scheduled, the Buckeyes are counting on having a little more fun this time around.

As Ohio State's players departed Value City Arena's hardwood for the final time this season, they were serenaded by the tones of Frank Sinatra.

Start spreading the news: the Buckeyes are returning to where their season essentially began. Following Wednesday night's victory against in-state foe Dayton, OSU has advanced to the semifinal round of the MasterCard NIT Tournament and punched a return ticket to Madison Square Garden.

But aside from the uniforms they will be wearing and the names on the backs of those jerseys, this OSU team has little in common with the one that advanced to the final round of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

"They are totally different people," senior guard Jamar Butler said of his teammates. "These young guys have stepped up and are playing well for us."

The same could not be said, apparently, more than four months ago for the Buckeyes. Barely two weeks removed from an exhibition loss to Division II Findlay, OSU's freshmen-laden team dispatched Wisconsin-Green Bay and Columbia to advance to the final four of the season-opening tournament.

After a convincing victory against then-No. 21 Syracuse in the semifinal round, the Buckeyes came crashing back to reality at the hands of a Texas A&M team that handed them a stinging 70-47 loss – second-worst during Matta's tenure.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of the Buckeyes admit they simply were not ready to play on such a big stage.

"I'm more ready for it," freshman Evan Turner said. "I didn't understand how hard it was to win at the beginning of the season, what you have to do and how tough you have to be mentally to go through a two-game stretch. When things get tight you still have to pull through, and that's why we lost to Texas A&M."

The loss to the Aggies was the first of many high-profile losses that ultimately cost the Buckeyes a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament. OSU lost to No. 1 North Carolina at home, giving them three losses in four games dating back to the loss to Texas A&M.

The Buckeyes put together an eight-game winning streak, but the rest of the schedule was dotted by high-profile losses to the likes of then-No. 7 Tennessee, then-No. 13 Indiana and then-No. 11 Wisconsin – among others.

But out of one of those losses came a new attitude that took a few weeks to materialize on the hardwood.

"I think we really came together after the Tennessee game, when coach talked to us and was like, ‘Hey, it's 0-0 now. You have to play as a family and as a team,' " senior Othello Hunter said.

At that point, the Buckeyes fell to 12-6 on the season, but plenty more struggles were to come. Prior to a two-game winning streak to close the regular season, OSU endured an eight-game stretch that saw it lose six games and four in a row at one point.

It culminated with a fruitless NCAA Tournament bid and an ensuing berth in the NIT for the second time this season. But rather than sulk, the Buckeyes took it as a wakeup call.

"Honestly, people who approach the tournament like that, I think I would question how much they love basketball," senior forward Matt Terwilliger said of potentially having that attitude. "No matter where you're playing, if you're playing in open gym or you're playing a non-conference game, conference game, NIT, NCAA, you're still getting to play the game. If you love it, you don't care where you're going to be playing it."

The message was clear: The pressure was off. And now the results are clear. A team with five freshmen and a sophomore who transferred into the program has grown since its last trip to the Garden.

"I was nervous," Turner said. "Those were some of my first college games. I heard so much about the Garden. It was my first college games … my first shot, I airballed."

Confidence is at an all-time high as the Buckeyes ride a three-game winning streak into New York. Head coach Thad Matta said the team was playing its best basketball of the season prior to the team's victory against Dayton, and that feeling carried over into the postgame locker room following the game against the Flyers.

"I would say everyone is having fun," sophomore David Lighty said. "It kind of feels like AAU again right now. A little more scripted and a lot more plays, but it's having fun and winning basketball games."

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