A young, hopeful Ohio State team heads to the road for its first true test on its early-season schedule and emerges with an impressive-looking victory against a team ranked among the top 25 nationally. Buoyed with confidence and believing themselves to be every bit as good as the victory made them out to be, the Buckeyes then gear up for another game away from home against an even higher-ranked foe.
The OSU men's basketball team finds itself in almost the exact same situation it was in one year ago. This year's team, fresh off an exciting, come-from-behind road victory Dec. 2 against No. 21 Miami (Fla.) is now tasked with taking on No. 7 Notre Dame on a neutral court (4 p.m., ESPNU).
But last year, an OSU roster loaded with seven newcomers tripped to New York City for a berth in the NIT Season Tip-Off. First up was a game against then-No. 21 Syracuse, and the Buckeyes increased an eight-point halftime lead to a decisive 79-65 victory against the Orange in just their third game of the season.
All the lofty aspirations that came to light after the win were quickly brought back down to earth two nights later, however, when the Buckeyes met up with Texas A&M in the championship game of the tournament. Overmatched and outplayed, OSU suffered the second-worst loss during the Thad Matta era as the Aggies dished out a 70-47 defeat.
This year, the Buckeyes again have seven newcomers on scholarship and are riding high after their first win against a ranked opponent.
But according to sophomore guard Jon Diebler, that is where the similarities between last year and this one end.
"It's hard to compare last year just because we have so many new guys," Diebler said. "Last year we had (seniors) Jamar (Butler) and (Matt Terwilliger) and Othello (Hunter) to lead us. This year we all sort of take a leadership role and we have that trust in each other.
"We had a certain kind of swagger to ourselves that (Miami) game and it helped."
A swagger, Diebler said, that has come about due to the closeness of this year's team. To a man, each member of this year's team has said that the Buckeyes have grown closer together after the experience of last season's eventual run to a postseason NIT championship.
Head coach Thad Matta said he could feel things moving in the right direction during spring workouts, when the coaches have eight weeks to work on skill instructions with the players.
Following the team's Nov. 24 victory against Bowling Green, sophomore Evan Turner said the Buckeyes knew they could withstand a late run by the Falcons and still emerge victorious because of the intensity with which they practice – a viewpoint shared by his teammates.
Now after the win against Miami, Diebler again credited the team's practice habits for the swagger OSU exhibited against the Hurricanes.
"Honestly, I think it comes from the practices that we've been having," he said. "We've been having great practices since we started back in October. They've been so competitive. It even goes back to the summer."
Unlike last year, this year's team was all present and accounted for during summer workouts at the behest of Matta. Last year, senior guard and eventual captain Jamar Butler skipped out on most of the team workouts during the summer, preferring to stay at home and work out on his own.
"Coach made a big emphasis on that, having everyone here for the whole 10 weeks building that bond," Diebler said.
Matta himself said he has seen that bond already start paying dividends.
"I've said this – and knock on wood – I think this team is closer," he said. "I think this team has a better feel for each other (and) just more of a togetherness. They have an understanding of the, ‘Hey look, we're all in this together' mentality, which is awesome as a coach to have."
Now the trick is to turn that mentality into a second consecutive victory against a ranked opponent. With a strong showing against the Fighting Irish, perhaps this team can fully turn the page on last year's struggles and truly forge its own identity.