The Buckeyes have easily dispatched their first two foes this year, but they have not exactly represented top-notch competition. First up was NAIA Division-II foe Walsh on Nov. 4, followed by a season-opening victory Monday night against Alcorn State. The scores of each game were 86-48 and 100-60, respectively.
Tonight, James Madison University comes to town in the second game of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. Whereas the Braves of ASU boasted eight freshmen on a roster that had no returning double-digit scorers, the Dukes invade Columbus after putting together a 21-win season a year ago under first-year head coach Matt Brady.
"We probably have to play a couple more games for us to get a better feel," he said. "After James Madison we can probably have a little feel but right now it's too early in the season to say."
The early returns have been overwhelmingly positive. Junior guard Evan Turner put up the second recorded triple-double in school history in the victory against the Braves, and the team as a whole has shown an increased desire and ability to push the basketball up the floor.
Primarily using what amounts to a four-guard set, the Buckeyes have spent more practice time than normal simply working on the fundamentals of passing in an order to help speed the ball up the court.
"I thought we did a better job of passing the ball, which is something we've spent a ton of time on," Matta said two days after the Walsh game. "I had a coach in there watching practice and he said, ‘I didn't know you guys spent this much time on minute fundamentals as you do in practice.' Passing is one that we spend a ton of time on."
Against the Braves, OSU assisted on 29 of 39 shots.
"We've been working on passing a lot in practice," said sophomore guard William Buford, who had three assists and no turnovers. "Last year we'd turn the ball over a lot, but we're doing good this year of getting each other open and knocking down shots."
The Buckeyes are hoping to add returning starting center Dallas Lauderdale to the lineup. The junior suffered a broken finger during workouts prior to the start of camp and has not yet played this season.
Lauderdale was fitted with a protective brace last week that allows him to play. Matta said he has banged backup Zisis Sarikopoulos in the face with it on at least one occasion during drills.
On Wednesday, the head coach said Lauderdale's status for tonight's game would not be determined until the morning of the game. However, the coach added that he has been practicing with the team.
Friday, Matta said he had hoped Lauderdale would be cleared for the Alcorn State game but if not should see his season debut against the Dukes.
Senior Kyle Madsen got the start in place of Lauderdale and was relieved by Sarikopoulos, but neither was particularly effective. Madsen had seven points and four rebounds in 21 minutes while Sarikopoulos picked up four fouls and added two points and four boards in 14 minutes.
It was his first official game as a Buckeye. Afterward, Matta was guarded when asked his opinion on how the two had performed.
"They know what their job is," he said. "Kyle banged a couple shots down. He's a guy who can step out to 17 feet. I'm very comfortable with him doing that. Zisis had a nice move in the post and it just didn't go down for him. Those guys are position rebounders. They know they've got to keep their man off the glass and come up with a few rebounds for us."
JMU's top returning post player is sophomore Julius Wells, who averaged 11.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season.
Buford said the return of Lauderdale would provide OSU with a spark.
"He's a physical player," the sophomore said. "He can run the floor well, finish, block shots. He helps us in the paint a lot, blocking shots and changing shots in the paint. That will be a big change for us and hopefully he'll be back soon."
Lauderdale or not, Matta said the main thing he wants to see out of his charges is the ability to take care of the basketball.