Buckeye Cagers Advancing In Many Ways

Ohio State is one of the few Division I teams still playing college basketball at this point in the season. While they are not in the tournament they would like to be in, the Buckeyes are nevertheless showing significant signs of improvement they are hoping will carry them to an NIT title and point them in the right position for next season.

NEW YORK – By most accounts, Ohio State's season should have ended by now. At some point in the season, a Buckeye team that showed both a lack of passion and no knack for pulling out a close victory managed to put it all together and go on a tournament run.

Somewhere off in the distance, Dante Hicks from the cult classic "Clerks" can be heard yelling "I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

Crazy as it might have sounded one month ago, the Buckeyes will take to the court Thursday night for a showdown with Massachusetts for the MasterCard NIT Tournament. And while that title might be the silver – perhaps even bronze or tinfoil – to the gold of winning an NCAA Tournament championship, the strides a young OSU team has taken in the last few weeks have not been lost on them.

"What is so crazy is our chemistry is crazy right now," freshman guard Evan Turner said. "We're all on the same page and we're all clicking. We're all a unit, everybody. It's kind of sad that it got clicking too late but we're all like brothers so we're enjoying this right now."

Different players will point to different moments during the season where they feel the team finally turned a corner. Some say the close loss to Tennessee on Jan. 19 that showed the Buckeyes could hang with the best in the country. Others say the overtime victory against Purdue on March 4 that was followed by a nine-point win against Michigan State five days later was the stretch that turned it all around.

Regardless of when it happened, the Buckeyes are clearly playing their best basketball of the season and peaking late in the season as head coach Thad Matta likes his teams to do. While most view it as being unfortunate that growth was not fully realized until it was too late to make the NCAA Tournament, the chance to compete in the NIT might have been the best thing for this team moving forward.

OSU loses three seniors next season but welcomes back a nucleus of young talent that will be joined by four freshmen. Rather than a potential early exit in the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes have had the benefit of playing until the calendar has turned to April for the second consecutive season. And while that will only pay off for one player next season – sophomore David Lighty is the lone scholarship player from last year's national runner-up team who will be on the roster next year – it would be hard not to see the benefits for the Buckeyes to advance as far as they have.

"The gains this basketball team has made in the last three weeks have been tremendous," Matta said. "We've seen guys in practice grow tremendously from skill level getting better to decision-making getting better. This has been very advantageous for our program to be in this situation."

One season ago, Matta said the Buckeyes had 111 total practices. On Wednesday, the team's final day to do so, OSU will have had 118 practices.

While Matta said the growth has been across the board, some players have enjoyed more time in the spotlight. Chief among that list are Lighty and freshman Kosta Koufos.

Although he has shown glimpses of his potential throughout his two years at OSU, Lighty was a player whose personal struggles mirrored those of the Buckeyes as a whole. Often out of control as he drove the basket and frequently careless with the basketball, Lighty spent much of the season pushing for the team lead in turnovers.

But in the last six games dating back to the win against the Boilermakers, Lighty has averaged 11.7 points per game and given his team a valuable threat to drive the ball from the wing.

"It's just a mindset of trying to be more aggressive and just playing to my strengths," he said. "I'm penetrating as much as possible and getting my teammates open looks. As the season has gone on, I've gotten better at reading defenses and learning when to take my man or when to pull the ball out."

In the frontcourt, that growth has been somewhat mirrored by that displayed by Koufos. A skilled 7-footer who is more comfortable playing in space, he has been tasked with figuring out how to play down low in the physical conference that is the Big Ten.

The maturation process has not been an easy one for him, but Koufos has steadily increased his scoring average since the Purdue game and is averaging 16.5 points per game in his last six contests.

Senior Othello Hunter said his partner in the paint was saddled with heavy expectations early on and felt that might have hurt his play.

"I think Kosta has stepped up," he said. "He finally is thinking of the team and looking at other teammates and not thinking about himself and he's doing pretty good now.

"I think out of high school he was just used to everything being about him, but when he steps into this team it's about the team. It's not about one person, it's about everybody."

Outwardly the consummate team player, Koufos said he is simply continuing to play for his teammates.

"I wouldn't say I was thinking about myself," he said. "I was just learning the game, and sometimes shots don't fall. I've got great teammates and a great coaching staff by my side and they've helped me well this season."

But Lighty and Koufos have not been alone in their growth. Matta singled out freshman Dallas Lauderdale and lauded his play in the last three weeks, citing one play in particular where he "destroyed" Lighty in practice.

Now, with one game left on the schedule, the Buckeyes are hoping to carry over the positive momentum and make the most of their situation by bringing home a championship. Anything less would be a disappointment, Turner said.

"That would be bad," he said. "To end on a loss, to know you lost and you have to wait until next November to get it taken care of again, that wouldn't have been cool at all. We're real fortunate to be playing right now and hopefully we can finish the season off with a win."

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