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Last updated: 12/18/2012 1:59 PM

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Men's basketball
Buckeyes Ready for Winthrop, but Kansas Looms Large
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Make no mistake about it, Saturday’s game against Kansas is not just another game. Not for these Buckeyes. Not after what happened last year.

It’s not so much about revenge, as the two teams that will meet Saturday at Value City Arena are much different than the ones that clashed twice last year – first at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and then in the Final Four down in New Orleans.

The Buckeyes have to get past Winthrop University tonight before they really start thinking about that game, and that team which took away Ohio State’s chance to play for a national championship last season.

Thad Matta
Photo by Jim Davidson
Thad Matta

“I’ll look more tomorrow night. At the conclusion of tomorrow night I’ll take a deep breath and say what does Kansas do,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said Monday.

“Our guys know that Kansas ended our season last year. I think they know the storied history of the program and what we walked into when we went in there last year.”

The top two players from that game in New Orleans are both gone – with both Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson going in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft. Despite those monumental losses, the Jayhawks and Buckeyes both return top 10 teams this season, but both teams have already faltered in the early going.

The Jayhawks are led by 7-footer Jeff Withey and are ranked No. 9 in the country despite an early-season loss to Michigan State. The same goes for Ohio State, which comes into this week ranked No. 7 in the polls despite that heartbreaking loss down at Duke – the new No. 1 in college basketball.

“I don’t know where Kansas is ranking wise,” Matta admitted Monday, “but I know this, they’re a heck of a basketball team.”

The Buckeyes are anxious to see where they measure up against a team like Kansas after the way that Duke game ended down at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Ohio State has registered four-straight blowout victories since that night, but it’s going to be even harder for this team not to look past Winthrop, a 4-4 basketball team from the Big South Conference, with that marquee game coming on Saturday.

Deshaun Thomas
Photo by Jim Davidson
Deshaun Tnomas

“Coming into the Kansas game, right now we’ve played good teams but not really that same competition after Duke,” said junior forward Deshaun Thomas.

“We’re trying to let people know we can play these type of teams. We’re going to try to come out against Kansas and play hard and play to the best of our ability.”

Thomas is averaging 20 points and nearly seven rebounds per game this season for the Buckeyes. In many ways, it has been a continuation of the fantastic tournament run Thomas put together back in March.

Only a sophomore then, Thomas was far-and-away the leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament, but he struggled to find his rhythm in that Final Four loss to Kansas. That’s something he has not forgotten in his return to Ohio State for a junior season that could very well propel him to the first round of next year’s NBA Draft.

“It sticks with me a lot, especially after I had that great run in the tournament and now I was in foul trouble,” Thomas recalled.

“I’ve never been in foul trouble, but I was in foul trouble in the Final Four and I think about it a lot. When we play them, it’s going to motivate me to play hard and get that win.”

The Buckeyes also lost that game at Kansas last year, although Sullinger did not play because of a back injury. It would be easy for Matta to overlook this Winthrop team as he and his coaching staff prepare for a nationally televised matchup with former Illinois coach Bill Self, but Ohio State’s coach has been down this road before.

“At the conclusion of tomorrow night I'll take a deep breath and say what does Kansas do,” Matta said Monday.

“We’ll start breaking them down and it’s more of a situation where we’re going into Christmas, and we’ve played Florida in this game a couple times.”

Matta typically likes to play a couple of this huge out-of-conference games in December as a litmus test for his team, and a way to prepare them for the rigors of Big Ten basketball. That’s even more of a concern this year, with the conference being as strong – at least at the top – as it has been in a number of years.

This young OSU group will find out a lot more about itself on Saturday, but even Thomas has learned not to look ahead for fear of tripping over what’s right in front him.  

“Coach, ever since I’ve been here, has been take one game at a time,” Thomas said.

“We’re just going to take this game and then after this game we’ll focus on Kansas and look at the film to see what they have special or if they have anything new.”

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