For perhaps the first time all season, Thad Matta drew a direct parallel between this year’s team and the one that went before it.
Last season, second-seeded Ohio State advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling in a hotly contested game against Tennessee. Four of this year’s starters were on the court for the opening tip in that contest, but three freshmen help round out the primary seven on this year’s team.
On the eve of a trip to Newark to face Kentucky in the Sweet 16, that did not stop their head coach from pointing out where last year’s team faltered.
“You’re constantly trying to draw parallels for your players,” Matta said.” Same situation, kind of the same type of team athletically but (the Wildcats) are a lot different. I wanted our guys to remember that game and know that was the end of (it). Last year was a pretty good run as well.”
In the immediate aftermath of OSU’s victory Sunday night against George Mason, senior forward David Lighty said there was a key lesson to be learned from the loss to the Volunteers.
“We never drew the line,” Lighty said of that game. “We thought going into the game that they were going to lay down and give us the game. We never pushed through it and got a stop when we needed it, another stop after that when we needed it. At the end of the day they ended up beating us. If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game and play for 40 minutes, anything is possible in the tournament.”
Reaching the Sweet 16 a season ago was the next step in a rebuilding process after losing four of the top six players from the team that made the national title game during Lighty’s freshman season. After failing to make the tournament the following season, the Buckeyes suffered a first-round overtime loss the next year before breaking through to the Sweet 16 last season.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from those things that we’ve accomplished and how to (surpass) them,” Lighty said. “It’s about our mind-set and being focused on passing what we did last year.”
According to senior forward Dallas Lauderdale, this year’s team feels no sense of accomplishment simply for reaching the next round.
“I think our mind-set last year was we were just excited to be in the Sweet 16 and just, ‘Yeah, this is great,’ ” he said. “It’s like, we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do last year but we don’t have that mind-set this year. We’re going into it with a mind-set where we’re trying to make something happen this year.”
In the loss, OSU was out-rebounded 41 to 29 and outscored in the paint by a 55-22 margin. The Buckeyes were hampered by Lighty’s inability to stay out of foul trouble. His 26 minutes and three personal fouls were enough to help keep him from playing aggressively enough to contain Tennessee’s post presence.
“(We’re) taking what we learned last year and using that knowledge to not let it happen again, knowing what we did last year and ways that we lost the game,” he said. “Giving up 50-some points in the paint and getting out-rebounded is the main factor why we lost. Having that idea in your head and knowing the feeling of we were still there and we played bad gives you the focus of what to do better this time.”
Lighty was limited to nine points and three rebounds in the loss. As he pointed out, however, OSU was still in position to send the game to overtime but Evan Turner's last-season jumper was partially blocked.
Junior guard William Buford said this feels like a closer team.
“I feel we’re more together this year,” he said. “We have a different mind-set than last year. We’ve just got to stay together, stay hungry and try to get better day by day. Last year we were happy just to be in the Sweet 16. This year we want to get farther than we did last year.”
Within an hour of capturing a Big Ten tournament title in Indianapolis, OSU learned its postseason fate. A number of reporters have since asked the players if it is a national-championship-or-bust mentality for this squad, and each player has held back from issuing such a proclamation.
While that obviously remains the goal, Matta continues to preach a focus on the here and now that his players seem to be following.
‘I think we have a chance to be great,” senior guard Jon Diebler said after the GMU win. “We didn’t play perfect. There’s always things we have to work on. I think tonight was just a great performance top to bottom by all of us.”
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