Buckeyes Still Searching For Consistency

This time of the season is when teams are typically fine-tuning their operations in preparation for a tournament run. This year, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is still trying to learn what to expect from his charges on a given night.

One regular-season game remains, and Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is still searching for answers.

Take in point Thursday's practice. On the script sheet, the Buckeyes were scheduled to go through an hour-long practice as they prepared for Sunday's regular-season finale against Northwestern. The final whistle did not blow until an hour and 25 minutes had passed as the OSU coaches continued to see things that merited extra attention.

Right now, practices that would have lasted 45 minutes in previous seasons are now lasting a full hour and a half as Matta and his charges strive for a goal that has eluded them for the entire season: consistency.

"A lot of it honestly has to do with I feel there are so many things we still have to touch on every day to hope that we do it on game day," Matta said.

By now, most of the particulars are well known. The Buckeyes lost their most battle-tested player in David Lighty after the seventh game of the season and he appears done for the year. After him, no player entered the year with more than one year's worth of experience in an OSU uniform on a roster that boasts three freshmen, four sophomores and three juniors aside from Lighty who all have transferred into the program.

As a result, Matta has found himself consistently trying to fix problems that pop up on a game-by-game or practice-by-practice basis. The end result is a team that has gone from NCAA Tournament lock to bubble team back to likely lock once again all within the last month.

"We've got to revisit a lot of different things," Matta said. "When you have a veteran team you can hang your hat on, ‘We're going to do these three things well because we always do them.' You guys have watched us all year, you don't know exactly what those three things might be until after the game."

Through it all, Matta said he does take fatigue into account as the season progresses. Sophomore center Dallas Lauderdale said the fact that practices are lasting longer has not had any effect on how the team feels come tip-off.

Having young teams has been a staple of Matta's tenure in Columbus. Last year, the Buckeyes relied heavily on three freshmen but also had three seniors in Jamar Butler, Matt Terwilliger and Othello Hunter to balance the situation out. The year before, OSU welcomed in one of the most storied recruiting classes of all time and rode its members to a national title game, but that team too had two seniors and a junior who had started since his freshman season.

This year's team does not have the luxury of leaning on a veteran group of upperclassmen, and that fact has shown. After a four-game winning streak had OSU sitting at 17-5 overall and 7-4 in Big Ten play one week into February, the Buckeyes have since gone 2-4 and suffered a three-game losing streak along the way.

Although Lauderdale said he has a hard time remembering just how practices went last season, he said he can feel the difference this time around with new, younger players being tasked with key leadership roles formerly filled by upperclassmen.

"I'm sure it's not (the same) because we had Jamar, Twig and Othello," he said. "Coach knew that they were going to put us on their backs. I'm sure it wasn't the same."

With Sunday's game against Northwestern (5 p.m., Big Ten Network), the Buckeyes find themselves with plenty to play for. Entering the weekend, they could finish anywhere from fourth to ninth for the league's conference tournament depending on how the weekend plays out.

For those reasons, both sophomore Evan Turner and Lauderdale said they know how the Buckeyes will play on Sunday even if their head coach does not.

"Really, I don't know how we can't be ready to play," Lauderdale said. "I know me, Evan, (Jon Diebler), P.J. (Hill), we've been through it last year. Well not really been through it, but close enough. Closer than (the freshmen). We have to set a tone. We have to come out in the first four minutes and set the tone. We have to."

Turner in particular has taken on the role as team leader in Lighty's absence. As the team's leader in points, rebounds, assists and steals, the candidate for league player-of-the-year honors said he knows the Buckeyes will come out prepared for the Wildcats for one key reason.

"We're coming out to win," he said. "We're going to bring intensity and we have to win. It's our last game of the season.

"Me being one of the leaders, I'm going to be coming out prepared so they're going to come out prepared."

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