The Buckeyes opened the season in the preseason NIT, beating Wisconsin-Green Bay and Columbia at home to advance to Madison Square Garden, then beating Syracuse but losing to Texas A&M in the finals.
So there is some familiarity with having played here already this season for OSU.
A year ago this weekend, Ohio State played in the NCAA national championship game and lost to Florida. The Gators are here as well for the NIT Final Four, but they won't meet again until the finals – if each wins game one. Ole Miss and UMass will have something to say about that.
The 22-13 Buckeyes have adjusted to the three-letter tourney as opposed to the four-letter one. And it's been a work in progress, much like the Rebels, as Ohio State had to replace four starters from last year's squad.
All-stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr., among others, were no longer on the Buckeyes' roster. This season may have started in New York, but it's a different team now on the return trip than it was way back then.
"It's just been a maturing of the younger guys," 6-foot-9, 244-pound senior forward Matt Terwilliger said. "There's a learning curve coming from high school. It takes a while and they played right off the bat out of necessity. They've done a great job listening and getting better from early in the season."
Terwilliger said he believes the Buckeyes have also done a good job adjusting to being this "new" team and are eager to win a championship this week.
"Obviously it's different," Terwilliger, who averages 16 points a game, said of the NIT than the NCAA. "But it's still about basketball and wanting to win a championship."
One area the Buckeyes will have to step up is rebounding.
"Coach (Thad Matta) has been stressing all week about how we have to rebound and keep them off the offensive glass," Terwilliger said. "We know they are good at that. Their big men are like 260 and 280. They're bangers but they're kind of like a lot of players we see every night in the Big Ten. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage."
Matta, the fourth-year OSU coach, says the Rebels present quite a challenge inside for his team.
"Just their size," Matta said. "Their guard play helps their rebounding. They have the ability to get by you and force rotations. Their strength and size really help them. They're just a great basketball team."
Ole Miss, 24-10 on the season, outrebounded Virginia Tech 46-23 on the road in last Wednesday night's 81-72 win. Matta's Buckeye team hasn't been quite as dominant on the boards.
"That's been a concern of ours all year," Matta said of his team's board work. "We have to do a great job on the glass, because they do a great job on the glass. A lot of it has to do with our field goal percentage defense is top 10 in the country. Teams are missing more against us. I know we won't stop their offensive rebounding, but the fewer the better, and we have to try not to let them convert those."
"We know they like to push the ball up and down the court and how they like to throw it into the post," said Jamar Butler, the Buckeye's point guard and lone returning starter off last season's national runner up. Butler leads the nation in free throw shooting percentage at 94 percent (81-of-86).
OSU has won five of its last six games including three in the NIT to get here – UNC-Asheville 84-66, California 73-56, and Dayton 74-63.
Matta said he feels his team is ready to win again, and that the Buckeyes have continued to improve over the course of the season.
"We're just such a completely different team than last year," Matta said. "With all the new guys we had on the team, we had to show them the way. When we didn't make the NCAA Tournament, we had to say hey this is the next challenge. I think we're playing some of the best basketball we've played all year."
Othello Hunter, F, Sr., 6-8, 225, 9.7 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game
Kosta Koufos, C, Fr., 7-0, 265, 14.2 points, 6.6 rebounds
Jamar Butler, G, Sr., 6-1, 195, 14.8 points, 6.0 assists
Evan Turner, G, Fr., 6-6, 200, 7.9 points, 4.3 rebounds
David Lighty, G, Soph., 6-5, 215, 8.8 points, 2.3 assists
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