Buckeyes Begin Two-Game Road Swing

In order to become a major player in the race for a Big Ten championship, the Ohio State Buckeyes know they have to be successful when playing on the road. That will be put to the test in the next two games as OSU undertakes a two-game road trip in conference play.

If Ohio State is serious about winning the Big Ten this season, that road officially begins Saturday at high noon.

That is when the No. 24/23 Buckeyes take to the road for their first conference game of the season away from the friendly confines of Value City Arena. Saturday's contest (noon, Big Ten Network) comes against No. 21 Minnesota, and that game will be followed up three days later with a prime-time tip against No. 10/15 Michigan State in East Lansing.

Although there are still 17 conference games left on the slate for OSU after its Dec. 31 victory against Iowa, the necessity of winning on the road within the Big Ten is not lost on this year's squad.

"It's very important," OSU sophomore guard Jon Diebler said after the Iowa win. "You've got to take care of your home court because playing on the road is so difficult. We might have only won by three points, but a win's a win. It's a new season and we're starting 1-0."

Head coach Thad Matta has frequently referenced how important it is for a team to both defend its home court and be able to steal victories on the road. Statistics back up Matta's point: Wisconsin won the conference last season by going 16-2 in conference play and losing one game on the road and one at home.

Runner-up Purdue was a perfect 9-0 at home but suffered three road losses. In missing the NCAA tournament, the Buckeyes compiled a 10-8 conference record but were just 3-6 away from home.

That need to win on the road was apparently taken to heart during the first slate of conference games. In five games featuring Big Ten teams, home teams went just 2-3 to open the schedule.

Trying to find ways to earn victories against the Golden Gophers and Spartans – teams OSU lost to last season away from home – this week could go a long way toward helping decide whether or not the Buckeyes find themselves as serious contenders for the conference crown.

Not that OSU is looking at these next two games in that context, however.

"You go into a one-game season every time you play," Matta said. "To venture ahead and say we need this one to get momentum for the next one, no, it's about what you have to do to win these next 40 minutes."

The Buckeyes have tasted success away from home already this season. OSU defeated Miami (Fla.) on its home court and then beat Notre Dame on a neutral floor in Indianapolis. Both foes were ranked at the time.

Although Matta said he hopes his players can draw from those experiences, the Buckeyes admit that conference play is different. To be successful in the environments OSU will primarily face from here on out will require mental toughness.

"It will be different from the standpoint of, ‘Yeah it's a game, but there's a little more at stake now because you're not only competing against that team but you're competing against nine other teams as well,' " Matta said. "Our thing is just focus in on us, what we need to do. You try to take the crowd out of it and that's where the mental toughness comes into play."

Junior guard P.J. Hill said he has been trying to prepare the team's newcomers for what to expect when the Buckeyes face Minnesota. In last year's game at the arena affectionately known as "The Barn," a young OSU squad faltered and dropped a 71-57 decision that helped keep them from the NCAA tournament.

"I think just the excitement of playing on the road in the Big Ten is different because when you play out of conference, it's not so much of a rivalry," Hill said. "This is tradition. The preparation is different for the Big Ten. All the coaches know each other."

To help get his team ready for the trek, Matta has been balancing getting in some physical practices along with getting his team some rest. Saying that the Buckeyes had two days off during the month of December, Matta had his team practice both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a result of the schedule.

"I think that you've really got to have a purpose and a sense of every time you're together or every time you're on the court be as concise (as possible) but demanding," Matta said.

The plan was to practice hard Friday morning before heading to Minnesota. Once there, the Buckeyes planned to shoot around in the evening and get ready to play the following morning. The basic team schedule would be the same as on previous road trips taken this season.

Like in those trips as well, the focus will simply be on the task at hand and not the big picture lurking in the wings.

"The hard part is you go into back-to-back road games and I've said this: Right now Saturday is the only game of the season in our minds,' " Matta said. "I think that's how we have to approach every game. Then you move on. We've still got 17 Big Ten games to play. That's why you've really got to keep the focus on us and on getting better."

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