Non-conference schedule makes a difference

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Last updated: 02/11/2014 3:56 AM
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Men's Basketball
Lightweight Non-conference Schedule an Impediment to Heavyweight Winning?
By Rob Ogden

By now, Thad Matta is surly tired of the questions.

Did the Buckeyes' less-than-arduous non-conference schedule contribute to Ohio State's difficulties in Big Ten play? Will it hinder the Buckeyes down the stretch?

It was a pre-Big Ten schedule that included more states and directions than a map. Central Connecticut State, North Florida, Morgan State and North Dakota State to name a few.

Of the only notable names on the calendar – Marquette, Maryland and Notre Dame – none are currently above .500 in conference play.

But even in the midst of an ugly losing steak, Matta wasn't pointing to November and December as reasons to explain January.

"I don't know how anybody could say that that's the problem," he said. "I think in the games that we played early, we saw a lot of different challenges and we were playing at a pretty high level. But I also believe there wasn't a time last year in March when I said, 'Oh, the Duke game.'"

In his nine previous seasons at Ohio State, Matta has historically sandwiched two or three high-level opponents between the snoozers, but this year was different. The Buckeyes didn't face a single team currently ranked in the top 25.

So during Matta's time in Columbus, has early-season strength of schedule correlated to postseason success? That's debatable.

Excluding 2005, when the Buckeyes were ineligible for postseason play, here's how Matta's Ohio State team's have fared:

2006: Second-round loss to Georgetown
2007: National runners-up
2008: NIT Champs
2009: First-round loss to Siena
2010: Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee
2011: Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky
2012: Final Four loss to Kansas
2013: Elite Eight loss to Wichita State

And here's the toughest non-conference games of each season (In parenthesis is the opponent's NCAA Tournament seed if applicable):

2006: LSU (4), Butler, at St. Joseph's
2007: at Florida (1), at North Carolina (1), Tennessee (5)
2008: North Carolina (1), Butler (7), Texas A&M (9)
2009: West Virginia (6), Butler (9) at University of Miami
2010: Butler (5), Cal (8), Florida State (9)
2011: at Florida (2), at Florida State (10), South Carolina
2012: Duke (2), at Kansas (2), Florida (7)
2013: at Duke (2), Kansas (1), Washington

So what does it all mean? Take a look.

Best finishes of the Matta era
Toughest non-conference slates
No. 1: 2007
No. 1: 2007
No. 2: 2012
No. 2: 2012
No. 3: 2013
No. 3: 2013
No. 4 (tie): 2010,
No. 4: 2008
No. 4 (tie): 2011
No. 5: 2011
No. 6: 2006
No. 6: 2010
No. 7: 2009
No. 7: 2006
No. 8: 2008
No. 8: 2009
 
No. 9: 2014

So there you go. Form your own opinion on whether or not the strength of the non-conference schedule affects a team after the new year. Aaron Craft doesn't think it has. At least not with this team.

"We have guys that have been through big battles here, and guys that have played through big games," Craft said. "It's not a scheduling thing at all."

Ohio State has gotten back on track with three consecutive wins in Big Ten play, but will be tested by Michigan on Tuesday.

It's the next game on a brutal Big Ten schedule that Matta said makes up for the lack of competition during the early months of the season.

"When the Big Ten switched from 16 to 18 (conference games), our non-conference schedule picked up Michigan State and Wisconsin," he said.

Matta said he would worry more about the schedule issue if he were coaching a young team, but the Buckeyes are led primarily by juniors and seniors.

He recalled former guard Jamar Butler, who Matta said had a terrified look in his eye during his first Big Ten game after a relatively soft non-conference slate in 2004.

"He was like blown away," Matta said.

 But even for a veteran team, former Ohio State point guard Scoonie Penn insists that those games matter.

"They always matter, because you have to become battle-tested," Penn said. "The first 15 games were cakewalks."

Even though the Buckeyes entered the season as a seasoned group, they had never before had to win without Deshaun Thomas.

The Buckeyes, lacking a go-to scorer, weren't used to being in close games without Thomas to lean on, and dropped five Big Ten games in the final minutes.

They have since won their past three, each time closing out their opponent in the last few minutes. 

But Ohio State needed to learn how to handle those situations without Thomas before Big Ten play began, Penn argued.

"When you're not used to those challenges and being in those situations, when they come, you have to know how to respond. I don't care how much of a veteran team you are, roles change," Penn said.

"Last year Deshaun Thomas was the guy who was gonna get that last shot up. This year you never know who's gonna do it. When that situation came about in the Big Ten, it was like a deer in the headlights. A lot of questions needed to be answered and a lot of times early in the season when you play these tough games, you start to have some of these questions answered."

There's still plenty of questions about the Buckeyes to be answered, Matta just hopes no more about the schedule.

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