December 21, 2012
Three-point play: Kansas
Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- More than three weeks and five wins removed from its loss to Duke, the No. 7 ranked Ohio State men's basketball team will return to the center stage on Saturday for a 4 p.m. tipoff with No. 9 Kansas at the Schottenstein Center. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta and members of his team met with the media on Friday to discuss the matchup, which has more storylines than your standard top-10 battle.
While Matta's past teams have a history of seeking revenge on opponents who have beaten them- see last season's 80-63 throttling of Indiana two weeks after the Hoosiers handed the Buckeyes their second loss of the season- the OSU coach downplayed the notion that this year's squad was out to avenge the two losses that the Jayhawks handed the Buckeyes last year, including one that ended OSU's season in the Final Four.
"We haven't brought that up, because I don't think we have to," Matta said. "Our season was ended by Kansas last year, that is what it is, but I think that our guys have a great amount of respect for Kansas, and not only this year, but the teams they've had for last hundred years."
At least one of Matta's players, however, admitted that while he's not necessarily seeking revenge against the Jayhawks, facing Kansas again has been on his mind since the end of last season.
"This is the team that ended our season last year and beat us twice, but as far as revenge goes, we're two different teams," junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "I've kind of been waiting for this game ever since our schedule got released."
Candid about Kansas
Despite losing players Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor from last year's squad, Matta remains impressed by the team that Kansas coach Bill Self returns from last season's national runner-up. The Jayhawks start four seniors, but are led in scoring by the one non-senior in their starting lineup, redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, who is averaging 15.9 points per game this season.
"They've got different pieces out there, but I want to say it's kind of a similar-like team," Matta said. "Kansas right now is playing at a level as high as anybody in college basketball. They start four seniors. It's like, wow. And their leading scorer's a redshirt freshman. They're a very, very experienced, seasoned basketball team."
Another key component to Kansas' success is center Jeff Withey, who leads the country in blocks with 5.4 per night. The Buckeyes know all the too well the type of impact that the 7-foot senior can have on the defensive end of the floor, and will undoubtedly have him on their minds throughout Saturday afternoon.
"He is a giant. His presence affects the game a lot," Smith Jr. said. "Obviously we have to mindful of him when we're driving the lane."
A month of improvement
Having reeled off five consecutive wins in between their meetings with Duke and Kansas, Smith Jr. feels as though the place where the Buckeyes have improved most over the past month is in their ability to focus on each and every game. With recent shaky performances against UNC-Asheville and Winthrop, Ohio State hasn't mastered that craft just yet, but is hoping that a win over the Jayhawks will continue to give the Buckeyes momentum heading into conference play.
"What we learned out here is we're not gonna be able to just come out here any given night and think we're gonna play our best basketball. We have to mentally prepare for that leading up to the game," Smith Jr. said. "That concept's not new, but with the guys here, you have to embrace that. It's a tradition, it's an everyday thing, it's a part of being a winner,"
More than anything, Matta wants to see that his team has improved as a whole since its loss to the Blue Devils on Nov. 28. And with Big Ten play just two weeks away and only a game with Chicago State before the start of conference play following Kansas, Saturday's matchup will give Matta the last chance to see just that."
"We've been able to address some of the areas that we've got to continue to get better at," Matta said. "This team has continued to grow together and that's something that's very important to me in terms of all the things that go into making a team. I think that these guys are in the right direction in that regard. Hopefully we're a better basketball team than we were at the end of November."
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