Going Gets Tougher For Struggling Buckeyes

Is that light at the end of the tunnel or a speeding freight train? It's a question the Ohio State men's basketball team is answering tonight as it plays its final game of a rough stretch to open Big Ten play. The fourth road game out of five contests tips tonight against Purdue for a Buckeye team in need of some positive momentum.

Thad Matta was quick to correct the interpretation.

In the aftermath of his team's Jan. 9 road loss against Minnesota, the Ohio State head coach said he was planning on putting his team's focus on itself rather than on the fact that the Buckeyes had now lost three of four Big Ten games to open up conference play.

But one day in advance of his team's next task, another road contest against No. 6 Purdue, Matta had to clarify the thought that he was not concerned with his team's overall record.

"I'm concerned," he said. "I never ignore it. I know what our record is to a T."

As Matta already knows, the Buckeyes now sit at 11-5 overall and in need of some positive momentum. After having faced a daunting early-season schedule within the Big Ten that saw it play four of five games away from home, OSU could potentially find itself on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday at this rate.

In his latest edition of Bracketology, updated Jan. 11, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi does not project the Buckeyes to make the NCAA Tournament. The team is not even listed among the first eight teams to not make the cut.

Junior guard Evan Turner said he and his teammates focused on this stretch of games when looking at the schedule at the beginning of the season.

"We were like, ‘We can definitely take that,' " he said. "Different things popped up and certain situations occurred and you've got to roll with the punches. We have a great opportunity to finish off."

It is with all of that on their shoulders that Matta's players will enter Mackey Arena (7 p.m., ESPN) to face a Boilermakers squad that just suffered its first loss of the season Saturday on the road against Wisconsin.

Not exactly good timing, but the Buckeyes are not looking at it that way.

"It's just basketball," Turner said. "That's pretty much it. We just came off a loss so I'm not really worried about how they feel."

During the team's current slide, Matta said there has not been much in the way of reoccurring problems for his players. The only common denominator has been some streaky shooting.

The Buckeyes sit second overall in field-goal percentage at 49.5 percent (439 for 887), but that figure dips to 40.5 percent (87 for 215) in conference games. That ranks ninth in the Big Ten.

To hear Turner describe it, the only thing that prevented the Buckeyes from defeating Minnesota three days ago was some cold shooting.

"It's not often when Jon Diebler goes 1 for 8 or even Jeremie (Simmons struggles)," he said. "I think you've got to hit shots and get our rhythm back and we'll be fine. Minnesota could've gone a completely different way if we could've hit some shots. I think we're fine. I think we're trying to work our way back."

In that game, OSU shot 45.5 percent from the floor – its best performance within the conference so far this year.

The question that enters the picture is whether or not this team is already starting to run out of gas. Matta has deployed a tight rotation this season that was further thinned while Turner was out of commission for six games. Now with him back in the fold, the Buckeyes regularly use an eight-man rotation that is decidedly top-heavy.

Four of the team's five starters – David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford and Turner – are averaging at least 31 minutes a game this season. In conference play, three are pushing at least 32 minutes a game with Turner coming in at an average of 29.0 after earning only 20 minutes in his return to the court.

Those numbers go up further in the team's three losses. Diebler has logged a full 40 minutes in two games and is averaging 38.3 minutes in those games, while Buford averages 36.7 minutes and Lighty checks in at 35.7.

Matta mentioned being aware of the fact that some of his players have logged some serious minutes as he planned practices following the loss to the Golden Gophers. His response in similar situations in the past has been to tell his players to play through it.

Of course, a win against the Boilermakers might go a long way toward curing some tired legs.

"It's no bad mood," Turner said of the team's demeanor. "We know we have a lot of opportunities ahead of us. The past is the past. We had a couple tough breaks and that's it. We have a great opportunity night. We just have to go out and attack."

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