Matta, Basketball Team Take Center Stage Against Duke
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — This week has been all about Urban Meyer and the Ohio State football team, but Tuesday night it will finally be about basketball.
It is sort of a shame that Meyer’s hiring coincided with this week, because Thad Matta and his No. 2-ranked Buckeyes are preparing for one of the biggest regular-season games of their lives against No. 3-ranked Duke.
“As I told our guys, there have probably been over 1,000 college basketball games and they’re playing in the two biggest ones to this point on paper,” Matta said during his press conference Monday.
“You come out of this game and you’re going to know a lot about your team. And you’re still in November.”
The first big-time matchup of the season for Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes came two weeks ago when Ohio State hosted then-No. 8 ranked Florida at Value City Arena. The Gators got off to a hot start, fueled by an early three-point barrage, but Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes shut them down the rest of the way for an 81-74 victory.
They have not faced much competition the rest of the year, but suddenly they are facing one of the premier programs in the country. It is believed to be the first Ohio State home nonconference game featuring two top-five teams ever, and William Buford and the Buckeyes like where they are heading into the big game.
“I think things are coming together,” he said Monday.
“When we play good defense, our defense leads to our offense. When we come out and play good D, our offense falls into place. We were setting good screens and knocking down shots.”
Buford is second on the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game this season, right behind Sullinger, who is averaging 18.8 points and 10.7 rebounds through the first six games of the season. They will need both of their top scorers to play like stars tonight (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) as they face a Duke team that can score from anywhere on the floor.
“They have the ability to shoot. The thing that is probably the most underestimated with them is their post game,” Matta said.
“They have the inside and outside attack. You have three guys out there as well as (Tyler) Thornton who can shoot from deep range. Defensively, they are a typical Duke team with their pressure. They want to speed you up and turn you over.”
Led by Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the Buckeyes have been excellent at turning opponents over this season. They have forced nearly twice as many turnovers (124) at the defensive end this season as they have at the offensive end (69), but they will be facing a talented Duke backcourt.
Junior Seth Curry is the brother of former Davidson star Stephon Curry, while freshman Austin Rivers is the highly touted son of Boston Celtics coach, and former Atlanta Hawks star Doc Rivers.
“He's a good basketball player,” Matta said if Rivers, who was widely considered to be the top high school prospect in the country.
“He's smart. He can shoot the basketball. He can handle the basketball. He's a crafty scorer. It will be a team effort to stop him from getting to the basket.”
Matta and his team will have help from one of the best crowds in Value City Arena history. There were already students camping out in front of the Schottenstein Center on Monday and the building is sold out for the mega-matchup with the Blue Devils.
Ohio State has not hosted Duke in Columbus since Dec. 30, 1964, a game the No. 8-ranked Blue Devils won 94-89 in double overtime. The last meeting between these to schools anywhere was a “neutral site” game at Greensboro, N.C. in the 2002 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Ohio State got 35 points from guard Brent Darby, but lost 91-76.
There will be as many as 27 NBA scouts on hand for the game, along with a number of NBA players. Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dywane Wade are even rumored to be sitting courtside tonight, and who knows if Urban Meyer will make an appearance.
It will truly be a special atmosphere. While Sullinger is excited for the opportunity to play in such a big game, but he is not worrying about the magnitude of facing a team like Duke or a coach like Mike Krzyzewski.
“We focus on us and not the opponent and that’s what makes this basketball team good,” the star sophomore said.
“Duke is a good defensive team, a great basketball team overall. Coach K is a great coach and he always has his teams ready for games like this, so whatever happens, happens. I just need to trust my teammates.”
The Buckeyes have won a lot of big games under Matta, which has not come as a surprise to Krzyzewski.
“After I got this job, I was out (recruiting) and Coach K stopped me and said, ‘Hey, I really believe you've got one of the top jobs in the country,’” Matta said.
“He said, ‘I've looked at Ohio State the past 25 years and I think you can win there.’”
He had no idea how right he would be. The Buckeyes were 34-3 a year ago and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. They have made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, but are still chasing the national championship that eluded them during the 2006-07 season.
Krzyzewski has won four of them at Duke. He has also made 11 Final Four appearances and recently became the all-time winningest coach in Division I history, passing his mentor Bob Knight.
The Buckeyes have won 28-straight home games and are 43-1 at Value City Arena dating back to 2009-10 season. None of that will mean much if they can’t get a victory over the Blue Devils Tuesday night.
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