February A Player's Month For Buckeyes

With six games left in the regular season, it can be argued that every remaining game for Ohio State is a crucial one. Head coach Thad Matta has his players focused on this month in particular. Find out why and who has cited as an example for the Buckeyes as they prepare to take on Northwestern.

March and April might be when champions are crowned, but Thad Matta has focused his players on a different month.

As the calendar turned from January to February, the Ohio State head men's basketball coach issued a challenge to his team that primarily consists of freshmen and sophomores. Knowing his players were facing a grind most of them had previously never experienced, Matta issued a directive.

Simply put, February is the month where players make plays.

"Across college basketball you've been going for a long period of time and it's a grueling stretch," Matta said. "It's the practices, it's the late games, it's the getting home late, getting up and going to class. February is where toughness prevails. When March hits it's like a new season, but February is where the tough guys, where the players (show up)."

The numbers back up Matta's claim, at least concerning his tenure in Columbus. While OSU's teams have compiled a .778 winning percentage in the month of March since Matta's arrival before the 2004-05 season, the Buckeyes entered this season with a .679 mark in the month of February.

That record in the shortest month is particularly affected by last year's team, which was just 2-5 in February before eventually missing out on the NCAA Tournament. Practically since that season ended, the OSU coaches have been preaching a new level of toughness to the players who would take the court this season.

Sophomore swingman Evan Turner said he feels that message has gotten across to this year's team.

"I think we're a pretty tough group of kids," he said. "I think we're prepared. We go into practice and we work hard every single day. We're a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, so to be 17-6 is pretty good compared to last year where we probably already had 11 losses by then. I think we're focused."

Classmate Jon Diebler said his teammates are understanding this year that lessons taught in practice are sometimes designed not to have an impact until a few weeks or months down the road.

"Last year as a freshman you might hear him talking about, back in October he'd say something but he's not really talking about then, he's talking about March," Diebler said. "You'd hear him say it but you don't comprehend. Now we understand after having that year under our belt. Even though we're only sophomores, we understand it a lot better."

Exactly one year prior to the date of Turner's comments, the Buckeyes suffered their first loss to Michigan during Matta's tenure when an 80-70 loss to the Wolverines dropped them to 17-9 overall. It was the team's second loss in three games, and it began what would become a four-game losing streak.

This year, OSU is 2-1 already in the month of February with four games yet to be played. The Buckeyes have six games remaining in the regular season, and Wednesday's contest with Northwestern (9 p.m., Big Ten Network) is one of two games left against teams OSU has not yet played this season.

As Matta put it, that means these remaining games are primarily against teams that already know what the Buckeyes can do. Drawing for inspiration, he pointed to former Xavier standout David West.

During his collegiate career, West averaged 16.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Full statistics are not available for the two years he played for Matta, but as a junior West averaged 18.0 points and 11.0 rebounds during the month of February. As a senior, he scored 47 points in one game and was the team's leading rebounder in five of seven February contests.

"He was the best I've ever had in February," Matta said. "He had an element about him that was a little bit unique. Players have to play now."

Turner has established himself as OSU's go-to player this year, and he appears to be taking a page from West's book. His scoring average on the season sits at 18.4 points per game, but he has averaged 22.3 points in the team's three February contests. He has also averaged 9.0 rebounds per outing in those three games and is averaging 7.6 overall.

Now the question will be whether or not Turner and the Buckeyes can end the month on a strong note and use it as a springboard into March Madness.

"It's a motivator," Turner said of the looming NCAA Tournament. "Every game we're about to play is a winnable game. Like coach says, just enjoy the fight. This is basketball. You're not really playing and thinking about losing. You're just thinking about winning.

"We're not going into the Northwestern game thinking, ‘Oh, we can't lose, we're nervous.' It shouldn't be like that. We work so hard, and when you work hard you gain confidence."

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