Five days removed from its 99-64 win over North Florida, the Ohio State men’s basketball team (6-0) will return to action on Wednesday for a matchup with Maryland (5-2) in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge (7 p.m., ESPN). On Tuesday, OSU head coach Thad Matta and members of his team met with the media to preview tonight’s showdown with the Terrapins and to talk the latest happenings in Buckeye basketball.
Taking On The Terps
In Maryland, Ohio State is taking on a future conference rival, as the Terrapins will be joining the Big Ten at the start of the 2014-15 season. So just how do the Buckeyes want to welcome Maryland to their league? According to OSU junior guard Shannon Scott, a win over the Terps would be a start.
“We want to win to win the game by as much as we can, but we’re not going to take them lightly or anything like that,” Scott said. “We don’t expect them to take us lightly. We know that every team wants to come in here and beat us, so we are going to be ready for that.”
After starting the season with a one-point loss to Connecticut, Maryland has jumped out to a 5-2 start this year, which has included a Paradise Jam title in the Virgin Islands. The Terrapins have been paced by sophomore swingman Jake Layman, who is averaging 16.4 points per game, and also include Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz, who is Maryland’s second-leading scorer with 13.7 points per game and leads the team with 7.6 rebounds per contest.
“When he was at Michigan he was definitely a shooter and I think that’s kind of how they used him,” Matta said of Smotrycz. “I think now he is putting the ball on the floor and he has really completed a lot of phases of his game and is playing at a really high level.”
We’re No. 3?
Having yet to lose this season, the Buckeyes are steadily climbing the charts, and now find themselves ranked fifth in the AP top 25 and third in the USA Today coaches poll. But is Ohio State really a top-five team at this point in the season? Matta said that it may be too soon to tell.
“It is just so early in terms of there’s so much basketball to be played,” Matta said. “We just turned to December. I think all of us are still trying to hit our stride, in terms of role definition and conceptually defensively and those types of things.”
Having been a member of three highly-regarded teams already in his college career, Aaron Craft knows what an elite basketball team looks like. This senior guard believes that this year’s Buckeye squad can be just that, but like his head coach, noted that there’s a lot of basketball left to be played.
“We’re definitely capable,” Craft said. “I think with the different guys we have, we talk about how we have a veteran group and all that, but it still took us a little bit to adjust to our new roles and everyone figure out how they can help this team the best and I think we're still learning how to do that. Hopefully we can continue to move forward.”
Unlike last year, when Deshaun Thomas led the Big Ten in scoring, the Buckeyes have failed to see a dominant scorer emerge for them through the first month of this season. Ohio State’s lack of a go-to scorer, however, has been negated by a balanced attack, with four Buckeyes averaging at least 11 points through the team’s first six games.
“We as a whole team feel like if everybody can score the ball, then we’re going to be hard to guard, honestly,” Scott said. “They can’t really just zone-in on one guy. All of us are making plays and creating for each other, so that makes us all capable of making plays at the end of the game as well.”
OSU’s even approach has been welcomed by Matta, who has always said that his best teams are those where you don’t know who is going to be the leading scorer on any given night.
“I do like the fact that we have had a lot of different guys that have had big nights, and going into the season I felt like that’s something that this team could possess night in and night out,” Matta said. “We have had guys, even in certain segments that have had great stretches of basketball. Ultimately, we are trying to get those to coincide at the same time.”
With 17 points against the Ospreys on Friday, LaQuinton Ross emerged from a season-long slump that saw the junior forward shoot a measly 22 percent from the field heading into the Buckeyes’ battle with North Florida. In the days since his season-high performance, Matta has seen positive indications from Ross, which leads him to believe that the preseason national player of the year candidate could be back on track.
“LaQuinton is one of these guys that the second he relaxes he becomes an average player. I think he’s starting to come to grips with that,” Matta said. “I am really proud of the way he played on Friday and I don’t know if there is anyone happier than I was in terms of him making shots. I’ll be excited to see how he comes out and plays. His interaction in practice any everything has been off the charts.”
Having played a large role in Ross’ recruitment, OSU assistant Dave Dickerson has also seen positive progress from the junior forward, who averaged 15 points per game in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“LaQuinton has been in the spotlight for a long time,” Dickerson said of the former four-star prospect. “The fact that he went through a little deal his first four or five games -- he’s a smart kid. We can only encourage him and reinforce some things and let him know how important he is to our team this year. As the year will go on and we get more games and more practices under us, I think he will be more consistent.”
The Terrapins are no stranger to Dickerson, who played forward for Maryland from 1985-1989. Having also served as an assistant in College Park from 1996-2005, tonight will mark Dickerson’s first time facing his alma mater, in a contest that he hopes will be business as usual for both himself and the Buckeyes.
“I enjoyed my four or five years as a student-athlete there in the mid-eighties -- or late-eighties -- boy, it’s been a long time. My nine years there as an assistant coach were probably the best nine years of my life,” Dickerson said. “My ties are to Ohio State now. I have emotional ties to Lenzelle Smith and Aaron Craft and Sam Thompson and those guys. This is my first time ever coaching against Maryland, but as far as the emotional part of it, it lies with Ohio State.”
A part of the Terrapins staff that won the national championship in 2002, Dickerson witnessed the stellar play and leadership of former Maryland guard Juan Dixon. The program’s all-time leading scorer, Dixon has returned to College Park as a special assistant for the Terps, and is somebody who Dickerson said reminds him of Craft as far as intangibles go.
“Both players have had a big effect on their programs,” Dickerson said of Dixon and Craft. “Juan was not heavily recruited. He’s one of those guys that we kind of out-evaluated some people for and he came in and had a great career -- all-time leading scorer and back-to-back Final Fours, the No. 17th player picked in the draft and played nine years in the league. Aaron reminds me of that. He’s one of those guys that in high school he was probably under-appreciated, but boy, the effect he has on the program from a day to day basis and game to game basis is just unique. You can’t put that into words.”