Ohio State will open up the 2005-06 basketball regular season against Chicago State on Sunday at Value City Arena (2 p.m., ESPN Plus/UPN Ch. 53 in Columbus).
The Buckeyes went 2-0 in the exhibition season with wins over Division II foes Findlay and Ashland.
Last year, OSU was 20-12 in head coach Thad Matta’s first season at the helm.
Chicago State was 9-19 last year, including 7-9 in the Mid-Continent Conference. The Cougars were hit hard by graduation and have several new players on their roster this year.
“They have 10 new guys and a couple of their returning guys are proven players,” Matta said. “We know that they’re an athletic team. From what we’ve seen on the box scores, we know they like to get up and score a lot of points and try to turn you over. They seem to be an up-tempo style team.”
For Matta and his team, it’s an exciting time of the year. The opener is finally here and the games count for real.
“It is,” Matta said. “These guys are ready for them to start counting. I think this is always an exciting time around the country as you start to watch games. There’s more scores on the bottom of the ticker for everyone to see. It’s here. We have to make sure we’re ready to play.”
Preseason camp has been intense for the Buckeyes. Several players are still fighting for starting spots and playing time.
“Yeah, I think they are,” Matta said. “And that’s one of the things you love as a coach is great competition. Hopefully you’ll see at the end of the year that it’s made us a better basketball team.”
The Buckeyes have welcomed a walk-on to the program this season. Sam Payne, 6-2 freshman guard from Columbus Linden-McKinley, joined the team a little over a week ago.
“He’s brought a tremendous attitude, he’s brought great energy, great enthusiasm,” Matta said.
Matta was asked what role Payne will play this year.
“Probably too early to determine, because he’s only been with us for around a week,” he said. “But I think that’s going to grow in time and he has to continue to get a feel for what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it.”
As a senior, Payne averaged 22 points, six rebounds and four assists a game in leading Linden-McKinley to the Division II sectional and regional championships. He was his squad’s MVP for the last two years and was also a first-team All-City League performer last year.
Matta was asked what the Buckeyes did well fundamentally during the preseason.
“Nothing,” he quipped. “No, I think we’ve got a better grasp of our defensive positioning, our defensive awareness. Now we’re just trying to sustain that for longer periods of time.”
During Matta’s interview, OSU’s players were getting a workout in across the hall. No, they’re not going to be the most physical team in the Big Ten, but they seem to have made great strides in the weight room.
“Yeah, they have,” Matta said. “The commitment they made to the weight room we’ve seen the gains and I think we’re in better shape than we were at this point last year.”
But even with the improved strength, there are still concerns about hitting the glass.
“I still don’t think we rebound the ball the way we need to,” Matta said. “But I think we’ve gotten better, I think, in making everybody aware of how important it is to us.”
Ohio State has four senior captains – Terence Dials, Je’Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger and Matt Sylvester. Matta was asked which of them he envisions stepping up as the vocal, on-court leader of the team.
“Je’Kel and Terence right now I would say are the two that have the best feel for that competitive nature that we’re looking for,” Matta said. “Je’Kel is a winner. He’s won everywhere he’s been and he’s a guy who is willing to say, ‘Hey, whatever you need me to do coach, I’ll do it.’ You know he’s going to give you everything he has. And not that the other guys don’t. I’m just saying he has a pretty good understanding of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, where it needs to be done.
“Terence, I think just the leadership role he’s been thrust into the last couple years, he has a pretty good understanding as well.”
Dials is one of the best players in the Big Ten, but he continues to have issues with foul problems. It has hampered him throughout his OSU career and he even fouled out against Ashland last week in just 12 minutes of action.
Making matters worse, the Buckeyes don’t have a proven center behind him.
But Matta doesn’t want Dials to play tentative and worry about fouls.
“No, I want him to play,” he said. “I want him to do what he can do. But I think he has a better understanding of the game of basketball.
“He can definitely learn (from the Ashland game). We showed him a lot of tape this week and I give him credit. He’s come in and had a pretty good week of practice.”
Matta thinks his team is improving daily, but he warns it has a long way to go.
“I think they are, but I want them aware that we’re not good enough yet,” he said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be and keeping attention to detail and those types of things are going to be vitally important to us as we move forward.”
Ohio State sophomores Matt Terwilliger and Jamar Butler are suspended for the Chicago State game for their participation in a charity 3-on-3 tournament during the offseason.
“They’ll be on the bench,” Matta said.
As for the Ohio State-Michigan football game, Matta thinks he’ll watch it from the comfort of his home.
“Probably my house, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said.
Any prediction on a score?
“I’ve learned my lesson – don’t make predictions,” he said. “Should be a heck of a game.”
A lot is expected from the 6-9 Dials this season. He’s had a very good career up to this point and he’s ready to get his final year rolling.
“Yeah, it’s exciting just to get the last year going,” he said. “Long time waiting and hopefully the fellas, everyone on the team comes out excited and ready to play.”
Dials is not completely sure what to expect from Chicago State, but he has a good idea.
“We haven’t watched too much film, but from what (Matta) tells us right now and what we’re working on in practice, they like to get it and go in transition,” he said. “We’re going to have to make sure we box out and get rebounds because they like to get out and go. Just protect the basket, because they like to penetrate as well.”
Dials thinks the Buckeyes can be very good this year, but like his coach, he knows they are a long way from where they need to be.
“I think we have a lot of holes to fill in, but I think the potential is there,” Dials said. “Obviously, what (Matta) tells you guys, rebounding is going to be an important factor and we’re still trying to work on getting better at that. It’s just a mentality that guys need to gain and I think we’re getting better in practice every day through rebounding drills we’ve been doing.”
The Buckeyes have a somewhat soft non-conference schedule. Dials was asked how well OSU can gage its rebounding playing against all these smaller teams.
“We can’t get out-rebounded by non-conference teams, smaller schools,” Dials said. “That would be a gage right there. If we’re getting out-rebounded, then we’re definitely going to get out-rebounded in the Big Ten. So, that’s something we need to work on and make sure that we go out here and out-rebound… even if they’re smaller, most likely that means they’re quicker, so they’re going to be quicker to the glass and things of that nature. So, it will prepare us for the Big Ten.”
Dials talked about fouling out against Ashland in just 12 minutes last week.
“I wasn’t concerned about fouling out,” he said. “I just need to focus on Chicago State. The foul problem is no issue to me. It is what it is, I don’t take too much credit for that… I really don’t care about fouling out against Ashland. That was not a big concern of mine.”
But OSU played like a different team last year when Dials was out of the game. Doesn’t that make Dials an indispensable player who needs to be concerned about fouls?
“I don’t really see myself as indispensable because I have a capable backup,” Dials said. “So, I go out there and play hard. Like (Matta) says, ‘Go out there and play as hard as you can for as long as you can.’ That’s the mentality I’m going out there with. I’m not going out there trying to protect myself, trying to prevent myself from fouling out or anything. Because if you play that way, you’re playing too tentative and you’re not going to be yourself. I’m just going out there to play aggressive basketball.”
Matta says Dials is in the best shape of his life and Dials agrees.
“Yeah, we’ve been doing a little bit extra running and stuff like that,” Dials said. “Just going out there and being able to run and get a few fast breaks and stuff of that nature makes you feel a little better.”
At times last year, Dials would be a dominant force in the paint. He would score in bunches, but then he wouldn’t be a factor for long stretches (such as the Michigan State game). Dials was asked for the key of playing well for 35 minutes, as opposed to scoring in spurts.
“That just happens with conditioning,” he said. “As long as I stay in shape, the better shape you’re in, the more you’re able to be product for a long period of time. I think that was the case last year. You learn how to win towards the end of the game.”
Sunday’s game will mark the first regular season contest at OSU for junior guards Ron Lewis and Sylvester Mayes, along with freshman forward Brayden Bell. Lewis, a Bowling Green transfer, and Mayes, a junior college transfer, are expected to be two of the top players on the team this year.