Cagers Hoping To Stay Undefeated

It's still early in the season, but the Ohio State men's basketball team has plenty of reasons to be excited about where this year's season will end up. Take a look at how this year's team compares to the team of two years ago at the same point in the season in this update.

David Lighty thinks this could be a pretty special Ohio State men's basketball team.

Six games into the 2008-09 schedule, the Buckeye sit with a perfect 6-0 record and the nation's longest winning streak at 11 games. In addition, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. It marked the highest national ranking for the team since the end of the 2006-07 season, and an increase from one week before when OSU was ranked No. 21 in both polls.

But holding an unblemished record this late in the season led the junior forward to offer a lofty comparison between this year's team and the one he was on as a freshman – the aforementioned last OSU team to be ranked.

"The difference from this team and that team is we're undefeated now," Lighty said. "At this point my freshman year we had lost to North Carolina, so we've got a better record so you can kind of say we're better than that team right now."

Lighty is correct in that the Buckeyes are undefeated later in the season than they were two seasons ago, but they have the same record they did heading into the showdown with the Tar Heels. Owing to a season-opening tournament that saw OSU play three games in three days, the game against UNC was the seventh of the season although it was played Nov. 29.

As Lighty put it, though, this year's team is "kind of" better than the one during Lighty's season. Although it is not yet the dominating team head coach Thad Matta had to command that season, Matta said he likes how this team is shaping up through the early going.

"I like where this team is," he said. "I think that there's tremendous room for improvement. One of the challenging things for a new team is learning when you're saying, ‘Well we won the game but the coaches are saying we didn't play well. We've got to do things better.' To these guys' credit they've done a very good job of understanding that."

That increased understanding is likely a big part of why the Buckeyes had successfully managed to navigate a dangerous portion of their early-season schedule. The stretch of early-season games saw the Buckeyes do something they had not done all last season: beat a ranked team on the road. That came Dec. 2 as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, where OSU knocked off No. 21 Miami (Fla.) with an impressive second-half comeback.

Four days later, a young OSU team went out and knocked off the No. 7 team in the country with a victory against Notre Dame in a neutral-site game played in Indianapolis.

Add in tight victories on their home court against Bowling Green and Butler and a historic blowout victory against Samford, and there has been plenty to be pleased with concerning this year's team in the early going.

But heading into tonight's game against Jacksonville (9 p.m., ESPNU), Matta is still cautioning his young team that there are plenty of games left on the schedule.

"I think my job is to see the big picture and say we've got things we've got to get better at," he said. "We've played six games. We're not even a quarter of the way through the season. I think where you are today doesn't really mean a lot. You haven't been knocked off yet, but you've got to keep striving to get better. I think my job a lot of times is conveying that to the players and keeping them motivated and focused."

The team's recent offensive performances should be enough to help keep the Buckeyes motivated. OSU has been held to 61 points or fewer in three of its first six games, and struggled to come up with points down the stretch in a 54-51 home victory against Butler on Dec. 13.

Matta said there is no magic cure for his team's occasional offensive struggles, adding that each team he has coached has faced scoring problems from time to time.

"I ask myself a lot of questions like maybe we need to change this maybe we need to change that," he said. "Every team's a little bit different and the things that we did in year one here shooting-wise to year two to year three, it's always been a little bit different. Quite honestly, with every team that we've had I've tried everything different."

Lighty finds himself as one of the primary culprits why the OSU offense has sputtered. Through six games, the team captain has connected on just 3 of 16 three-point attempts and has missed 11 of his 21 free-throw attempts.

His inability to score from deep has allowed teams to sag off of him defensively and prevent him from successfully driving the basket.

Speaking before the Jacksonville game, Lighty said he is confident he can turn things around.

"I've just got to focus more and concentrate more, just stay with it, follow through and it will start falling," he said. "My mom always told me practice makes perfect. Just keep practicing and they're going to start falling for me."

If they do and this year's team keeps improving, it will be another step toward truly being as talented as the team from two years ago.

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