Riding a two-game losing streak, the message permeating from the Ohio State locker room was simple last week.
It’s a long season.
What had become the Buckeyes’ de-facto company line was echoed by players, coaches and even media members as a reminder that it’s only January and that it was less than a year ago that Ohio State overcame a similar slump to advance all the way to the Elite Eight.
But now that the Buckeyes’ losing skid has advanced to three games for the first time in nearly five calendar years, the attitude inside the halls of the Schottenstein Center has shifted. Long gone are the reminders that there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, replaced with a an increased importance on getting Ohio State’s season headed in the right direction.
“We need to have a sense of urgency because of the amount of games that are left. We're over halfway with the guaranteed number of games that've got this year,” said senior guard Aaron Craft. “It's really easy to say that we have a lot of time but, in a sense, we don't. As soon as we can find a way to get back on the right track, the better.”
Having dropped games to Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota over the course of the past 13 days, the Buckeyes find themselves at 15-3 on the season, but with a 2-3 record in Big Ten play. Sitting in seventh place of the conference standings is certainly a foreign feeling for Craft and his teammates, none of whom have finished any lower than second in the league during their shared time in Columbus.
“You go down the line of the guys on the team and I don't think any of us have ever lost three games in a row, at any level,” Craft said “It's different. It's kinda unchartered territory for everyone.”
While three-game skids may be unfamiliar for his players, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is no stranger to the ups and downs that come along with a college basketball regular season. Now in his 14th season as a Division-I head coach, Matta has nearly seen it all during stops at Butler, Xavier and OSU, coaching a national runner-up, an NIT champion, and nearly everything in between.
So although the younger Craft may have made a call for urgency, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Matta has managed to keep the big picture in mind. Reminded that Louisville also lost three games in January last season before winning a national title, Matta countered by revealing that he received a text from a national champion head coach who once endured a five-game skid, before ultimately cutting down the nets at season's end.
“We can't change the past in terms of what's transpired and the only thing that we can control is the next game, the next practice,” Matta said. “There's gonna be peaks and valleys to it and as I told the guys the other night, we're at the bottom. We've lost three games in a row. There's only one way we can go up and there's only one team that can change that and that's us and that's kind of where we are.”
The No. 17 Buckeyes first -- or next -- chance to do just that comes tonight, when they head to Lincoln to face a Nebraska team looking for its first win in Big Ten play this season. Despite their 0-4 mark in the conference and 8-8 overall record, the Cornhuskers have played some of the league’s top teams tough, losing to both Michigan and Purdue by single-digit margins.
Ohio State has already faced Nebraska once this season, handing the Huskers an 84-53 beating in Columbus on Jan. 4. But both Buckeye players and coaches are well aware that the two teams are each in different places now than they were just 16 days ago.
“They're obviously playing better, especially at home,” Matta said of Nebraska. “They’ve had a rough schedule to this point but they're a team that we were able to pull away and it was an odd pull away in here but the first 30 minutes of the game were nip and tuck.”
Added Craft: “They're not gonna feel sorry for us, they seem to have another energy level when they play at home in front of all those fans on their new floor and new arena so it's gonna be another challenge.
“It's not gonna be anything like the game we had in here. That seems like forever ago.”
And considering that it also happens to be the last time that the Buckeyes picked up a win, it’s no wonder why Craft is ready to start a new kind of streak and once again change the message inside the Ohio State locker room.