While Ohio State struggled with Winthrop on Tuesday night before eventually closing out a 10-point victory in Value City Arena, Kansas was systematically dominating Richmond on its home floor while cruising to an 87-59 win.
The No. 7 Buckeyes (9-1) weren’t directly focused on the Eagles, which was easy for players to admit during postgame interviews when asked to explain the source of their struggles against a clearly overmatched team.
And when Ohio State looks back at the film of the No. 9 Jayhawks’ (9-1) most recent win over the Spiders – a team that had a 9-2 record before the game – the Buckeyes will see a team that boasts similar talent, but also avoided any hiccups in their final tune-up before Saturday’s pivotal top-10 matchup in Columbus.
Maybe the Kansas film will serve as an eye-opener for the Buckeyes as they try to figure out what it takes to play at an elite level.
Aaron Craft didn’t need to wait for the film.
“If we needed a wake up call for our upcoming game this weekend, then we shouldn’t be playing it at all,” the junior point guard said. “If we are not sure we are ready to play Kansas with what is at stake, then we need to reevaluate ourselves as a team.”
Ohio State’s mind-frame – or lack thereof – against Winthrop is anything but surprising when considering the Buckeyes are eager to prove that they belong in the conversation with college basketball’s top teams.
A win against Kansas is the only thing that can make that point for the Buckeyes before Big Ten play starts, particularly because OSU fell in their only real test of the early season – a 73-68 loss at now No. 1 Duke on Nov. 28.
“Coming into the Kansas game, right now we’ve played good teams but not really that same competition since Duke,” junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. “We’re trying to let people know we can play these type of teams. We’re going to try to come out against Kansas and play hard and play to the best of our ability.”
Ohio State has rattled off five-straight wins since falling to the Blue Devils, the first four coming in dominant fashion. At times during that winning streak, the Buckeyes made it look easy, all while showing general improvement in areas of concern that became apparent in the second half at Duke.
Head coach Thad Matta was pleased to see improvement during that stretch, especially after noting that his team struggled at times in the early portion of the season to build off of lessons already learned.
Ohio State will have had nearly a month to improve on the shortcomings Duke took advantage of in front of a packed house in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but facing the Jayhawks could prove whether those improvements are real or just fool’s gold discovered while playing inferior opponents.
“We didn’t do the things we wanted to do against Duke,” sophomore forward Sam Thompson said. “We didn’t execute offensively the way we could have or should have and we really felt like we let the game slip away.
“This game isn’t so much about gauging as it is just becoming the best team that we can be. We want to make improvements every day and we will have almost a month to get better between the Duke and the Kansas games. We want to go out there and execute what we’ve been working on and see the things we’ve been talking about in practice happen in a big game like that.”
There won’t be a lack of motivation for Ohio State, who fell to Kansas twice last season –including a heartbreaking defeat in the Final Four that ended its season. Head coach Thad Matta hasn’t needed to remind his team of that.
“Our guys know that Kansas ended our season last year,” said Matta, who hasn’t had to make an added effort in motivating his team for the Jayhawks. “I think they know the storied history of the program.”
That type of team, led again this season by 7-foot big man Jeff Withey, gives the Buckeyes the perfect kind of scenario to see if their roster is equipped to make a second consecutive run in the NCAA Tournament.
Will the Buckeyes get reliable secondary scoring offense from someone not named Thomas? Will there be enough production in from OSU’s three post players – both on offense and defense – to slow Withey enough to stop him from controlling the game inside? And can OSU get out in transition, and finish in those opportunities, against a team that possesses similar athleticism?
Only time will well.
“Coach Matta wants us to really build on what we’ve done,” Thompson said. “Earlier in the season, we’d have to revisit things a lot. That has really gotten better… I think we’ll really see how we’re doing with how we play against Kansas.”
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