Buckeyes Circling The Wagons

A chance encounter helped drive home a key fact about this year's Ohio State men's basketball team: the fact that, much more so than last year, this year's team is a team. That simple revelation has the Buckeyes full of confidence as they head into tonight's game with Illinois.

This Ohio State squad has gained an appreciation for each other regardless of the situation.

Those who witnessed the Buckeyes withstand a second-half surge from host Michigan before mounting a counterpunch that propelled them to victory saw visual evidence of the team's togetherness paying off in the heat of battle.

But for the players themselves, that feeling of camaraderie had been fully hammered home three days ago at – of all places – Ohio State's Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital. OSU's players were enjoying an NCAA-mandated day of rest from practice, but they were tasked with heading to the hospital in small groups to visit patients and spread some goodwill throughout the building.

While the time spent doing just that was rewarding, it was a couple of chance encounters that really stuck with sophomore swingman Evan Turner.

"We met up differently," Turner said. "Once we all saw each other we were so excited to see each other, you could just see the amusement on each others' faces. Just to have that type of connection with a group of people and be that tight with people, it's just amazing to be around that certain group."

It has been well-documented that last year's team did not fully grasp the team concept until it was too late to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, a lack of cohesion and identity relegated the Buckeyes to the postseason National Invitational Tournament, where their newfound sense of self helped lead them to a championship.

This season, the players have discussed how the team already feels like more of a family than it did at any point last season. The encounter at the James helped to drill that point home to Turner.

"We're actual friends," he said. "Compared to last year, it wasn't like that. This year we're one tight-knit group. When we go on the road and win games at Michigan or wherever, it doesn't really surprise because we're a group. We're connected and we're all down for each other. Once you're such a tight-knit team, you can do anything pretty much."

That closeness is something head coach Thad Matta said he has sensed from his charges this season. While he said he was pleased with the way OSU defeated the Wolverines to improve to 3-2 in Big Ten play, Matta cautioned against getting too excited about this team just yet.

"We're only halfway through the season," he said. "We're not a finished product yet. I don't want to think that we've arrived, because across the board we can all play a little better and need those guys to play better."

An important step toward Matta's goals and Turner's ideals might have come in the form of the same game: OSU's 67-58 loss to Michigan State on Jan. 6. Although it knocked the Buckeyes down to 0-2 in conference play, it provided a gut check for a young team that primarily relies on freshmen and sophomores to get the job done.

Soft-spoken freshman William Buford said he felt that game – played in front of a raucous crowd that included MSU's "Izzone" student section – was a wake-up call for his classmates.

The primary lessons were that the Buckeyes needed to work harder in practice and that they needed to learn to trust each other in hostile environments. Compared to that environment, Turner said places such as Illinois' Assembly Hall won't seem quite as bad.

"Once you go into a place like Michigan State, I'm pretty sure all they expect is the worst," he said. "Michigan State is probably the toughest place to play in the conference. Once we went to other places, they probably didn't seem too tough. Once (the freshmen) got their feet wet they got acclimated. It's just playing basketball and not too much worried about anything else."

The hope for OSU is that those lessons carry into tonight's game with the Fighting Illini (7 p.m., ESPN). With identical conference records, the game is crucial for both teams heading into the thick of Big Ten play.

If they do, Turner believes that the Buckeyes can be a formidable team from here on out.

"We definitely have that swagger about us," he said. "You've got to believe. We worked too hard not to have that confidence in ourselves. We expect to win. We can't worry about other teams. We have to make what we want to happen. It's in our hands right now.

"No one can make or break us but ourselves."

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