Matta, Buford Disappointed in Team Focus After Senior Day Loss
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — William Buford was at a loss for words following Ohio State’s 63-60 loss to Wisconsin Sunday.
It was not the Senior Day ending he had hoped for, or expected, as the Buckeyes lost their second home game in three tries after winning 39 straight games at Value City Arena.
The team’s lone senior sat at the podium with a towel draped over his head and a blank stare on his face. It was the same look Buford had after his 2-for-16 performance against Kentucky when Ohio State was bounced from the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
That was a night Buford and his teammates never saw coming. Sunday’s loss—which drops the Buckeyes two full games behind Michigan State with two to play—was one they should have seen coming a mile away.
“Practice leading up to the game. We didn’t have a great practice before those games, and it showed when we played,” Buford said of Ohio State’s three losses in the last five games.
The Buckeyes were sloppy in their loss to Wisconsin, turning the ball over 10 times in the first half. They missed critical free throws down the stretch and allowed Jared Berggren a wide-open three to give the Badgers a two-point lead with 31 seconds to play.
It was not the look of a team that was dialed in to compete for another Big Ten championship, or much of anything.
“It’s not a secret. Leaving the practice gym, you know if we practiced well as a team or if we didn’t,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said.
“We’ve had that feeling probably more than we should have. We have to find a way to learn from it and to move on and refocus.”
After winning 13 of their first 14 games to start the season, the Buckeyes look like a much different team than the one that beat Florida and rolled over Duke in the early non-conference schedule.
They look like a team that has completely lost its focus, which might explain why head coach Thad Matta tossed his entire team out of practice in the days leading up to Sunday’s home finale.
“They weren’t ready to practice, and this team has shown we play like we practice,” he said candidly.
“(I am) tying to get them mentally ready to go and accept the challenge that is in front of them. I think at times, they don’t understand what I see in our approach. Guys have to look themselves in the mirror and come back ready to go.”
It was not the first time in his career that Matta has kicked his team out of practice, but the fact it is happening at the tail end of a regular season title chase, and just days before the start of the postseason, is alarming to everyone.
“It’s very concerning leading up into March,” Buford said quietly.
“We should be together by now. Hopefully we watch film, have a great practice and get ready for the next game.”
Having great practices has become an elusive entity with this team. Craft, who is considered to be the leader of the team, is only sophomore. He believes part of the problem is a roster of mostly first or second year guys who don’t understand what it takes to grind through a season.
“That’s a little bit of our immaturity, our youngness coming out. Just understanding that it’s a long season and how important every game is,” Craft said.
“It is tough to come into practice every day, we’re over 100 practices for the year, and still wanting to get better and come in with a good attitude. It’s tough, but we’re still learning. We’re a young team and I think we’re going to figure it out.”
Matta disagreed with his floor general about the problems stemming from his team’s youthfulness.
“No, because my freshmen always come ready to practice,” he said frankly.
“They do a great job.”
That statement makes it clear that Matta is not pleased with the way some of his upper classmen are handling their business, both in practice and in games.
That might even include star sophomore Jared Sullinger, who scored just eight points, missed all three of his free throws and grabbed only six rebounds in 33 minutes against Wisconsin.
“I know he’s been battling a cold recently, but he’s played through much worse than that,” Matta said.
“I do know that he’s playing his best basketball when he’s focused and engaged.”
He did not seem to be either of those things in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin, which was a must-win game for the Buckeyes if they were going to have a chance to catch Michigan State for the top spot in the conference.
Matta said he did not think there were issues in the locker room that are distracting his team, but it seems clear that something is going on with the Buckeyes, who have traditionally played their best basketball in March under Matta.
“I think just getting back to playing basketball and not worry too much about all the outside things that are going on,” Craft said.
“We can let this affect us maybe through today, but tomorrow we need to come back in refocused.”
They don’t have much time left. There are only two games remaining in the regular season, and the Buckeyes have little or no chance of catching the Spartans, even with a win in East Lansing in the season finale.
March is coming quick, and with it the pressure of a win-or-go-home tournament. Matta is hoping his team will rediscover its focus, and believes there is still enough time left to get it fixed.
“Yeah, we will,” he said.
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