Starting Five: Iowa Preview
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Outside of senior guard William Buford, no member of Ohio State’s basketball team had started Big Ten play with a conference record any worse than 11-0.
Emphasis on had.
Thanks to a New Year’s Eve loss to Indiana, the Buckeyes are looking up in the Big Ten standings as they hit a road that has been unkind to them on their way to Iowa City, Iowa to face the Hawkeyes (10-6, 2-1) at 3 p.m. ET Saturday (Big Ten Network). .
Returning to Carver-Hawkeye Arena
A season ago, an undefeated Ohio State team headed to Iowa City to face a 7-6 Hawkeye team that was struggling under then-first year head coach Fran McCaffery. Despite their record, the Hawkeyes provided the Buckeyes with one of their first true tests of the 2010-11 season, leading OSU 35-29 at halftime, before ultimately falling to the Buckeyes by a score of 73-68.
“They had a great crowd, it’s a great place to go play,” OSU sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said.
“We had guys that did things that they don’t usually do but I think we did a good job of playing through it. I think this year we have to go in with the understanding Iowa doesn’t have the reputation of places like Kansas and Indiana like the places we’ve gone before, but it’s still going to be a tough place to play.”
Iowa might be an even tougher place to play this year.
In their second year under McCaffery’s direction, the Hawkeyes have jumped out to a 2-1 conference record that has included road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota. OSU coach Thad Matta said that you really start to notice a difference in a program during a coach’s second season with a team.
“It takes time to mold them and get your guys playing the way you want to play,” Matta said Friday before the Buckeyes left town.
“You look at us in year two here, you start to see our trademark and we win the Big Ten.”
Jared returns to the road
Playing in Iowa might be an easier task for the Buckeyes if they can get their first consistent road effort of the season out of sophomore forward Jared Sullinger. Whether it was injuries in Kansas and South Carolina or foul trouble in Indiana, the Buckeyes’ big man is yet to play in more than 29 minutes in game away from Value City Arena this season.
“Hopefully our guys, with where we’ve played this year and some of the hands that we’ve been dealt that we’ve played in those games, you know, in two of those road games, Jared averaged three minutes ... we’ve got to learn to deal with adversity,” Matta said.
A teammate of Sullinger’s since their AAU days in high school, Craft said that being able to keep OSU’s National Player of the Year candidate on the floor on the road would be invaluable for the Buckeyes.
“It helps a lot. Not only just on the offensive end or really on the defensive end. Just having that experience on the floor,” Craft said.
“We have great guys behind him that are very capable, but they just haven’t been through what Jared has.”
Having Sullinger on the floor might not be as important if his teammates can’t get him the ball. Over their past two games, the Buckeyes have averaged 18 turnovers, a stat that Craft had trouble explaining, but said that his team is trying to improve.
“Some mental errors, some mental mistakes that don’t usually happen. I think it’s kind of happened to some other guys as well,” Craft said.
“We’re trying to find a way to deal with and just concentrate and that focus that we’ve need, that we’ve had for these past few years.”
Clearly unhappy with his team’s carelessness with the ball lately, Matta admitted to putting an increased focus on decreasing his team’s turnovers during its past week of practice.
“Even when we don’t turn the ball over, it’s something we always talk about,” Matta said.
“Just being more sure with the ball and connecting the dots. We don’t want to waste possessions.”
Stepping it up in practice
It hasn’t just been ball security that Matta has been preaching this week. Following Ohio State’s loss to Indiana, the Buckeyes have endured a vigorous week of practice that the OSU coach said was necessary in determining the toughness of his team.
“Every opponent you play from here on in is going to be different,” Matta said.
“So much of it in my mind is having the mental toughness to get yourself and your teammates ready to play and I think that’s the thing of connecting.”
Known for being one of the Buckeyes’ hardest workers, Craft said that his team is making improvements in practice, even if it means recalling the lessons taught to them by former OSU captain David Lighty.
“More recently we’ve been trying to come to an understanding of how important practice is on a daily basis and I think that’s what Dave did last year,” Craft said.
“Slowly as a team, we’re starting to grasp that and understand how important practice is on a daily basis.”
Big Ten rising
With its early loss in the Big Ten season to Indiana, the Buckeyes have fallen back into a six-way tie for second place in the conference, with Michigan State currently leading the Big Ten at 3-0. As the coach of the back-to-back conference champion Buckeyes, Matta feels confident in his team’s chances for a three-peat, but knows that it won’t be easy, especially this season.
“It’s as good as it’s been,” Matta said of the conference.
“From top to bottom, I think it’s the same deal where if you don’t come to play, you’re going to lose. And that’s a proven fact.”
Playing in a league with other premiere point guards such as Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Michigan’s Trey Burke, Craft certainly has his work cut out for him for the remainder of the season, but knows that the Buckeye’s can’t caught overlooking the Hawkeyes on Saturday.
“The Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences in the nation,” Craft said.
“Day-in and day-out, any team can beat any other one no matter where it’s being played, and I think you’ve seen that already.”