COLUMBUS - As the Ohio State moves beyond the midway point of the college basketball season, a long look in the mirror reveals a drastically different team than last year, but one that might be further along in its development than expected.
Ohio State's "Extreme Makeover - Big Ten Edition" has produced a 14-6 record, wins in five of the first seven conference games, and an emerging identity.
This is definitely not last year's Buckeyes, who won the Big Ten title, and went 35-4 on their way to the NCAA championship game. From that team, OSU lost three gifted underclassmen to the NBA, and two seniors who figured prominently in the
A lot of the void that major turnover in personnel created has been filled by freshmen who have had their introduction to this level on the fly. Jamar Butler, a senior in the current lineup that includes four freshman in its primary rotation, said the younger players are progressing.
"I think the main thing is in practice - they are starting to listen more, starting to catch on to things quicker, and just getting used to the college game," Butler said. "We're halfway through the season now, and I don't consider any of them freshmen any more."
Ohio State, which plays tonight at Penn State and then travels Saturday to Iowa, has leaned heavily on Butler, a 6-1 point guard from Lima, to carry a lot of the load while his youthful teammates mature. Butler, who had 27 points in a win Saturday over Minnesota, leads the team with 15.0 points per game, and logs more than 35 minutes per game.
Butler has hit 93 percent of his free throws this season (51-55), which is third-best in the nation. He has 6.3 assists per game, 18th nationally, and his plus-2.6 assist/turnover ratio ranks 21st in the country.
Senior forward Othello Hunter, senior forward/center Matt Terwilliger and sophomore forward David Lighty give Ohio State some experience in the lineup, but freshmen Kosta Koufos, Evan Turner, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler have all played significant minutes.
Diebler of Upper Sandusky, who set Ohio's all-time scoring record in high school, is struggling with his shooting. He's
averaging 6.3 points, hitting just 28.7 percent from 2-point range and just 26.7 percent of his
"Sometimes with the young guys, it's just positive reinforcement," Terwilliger said about the approach the older Buckeyes have used. "Just telling them to keep your head in the game."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he thinks his team knows that this week, with the two Big Ten away games, will be significant in determining where the Buckeyes stack up in the league. He said OSU is in better position now to handle the rigors of playing on the road.
"I think we're a young group of guys that have a little bit better of an understanding of the mind-set that you have to have, and the preparation that goes into it, and the understanding of what a team is going to try to do," Matta said. "It's putting yourself in the frame of mind that this is the job we've got to do for 40 minutes. It's us kind of against the world tomorrow night, so let's get it done."
Butler, who had his school-record streak of 38 consecutive made free throws snapped against Minnesota, said tonight's game against the Nittany Lions (10-9, 2-5 Big Ten) is critical.
"This is a really big week for us," Butler said. "The Big Ten is really tough. Anything can happen in this conference, and you've got to be ready to play."
Matta said that as Ohio State begins this 11-game stretch that will close the regular season, the Buckeyes need to display toughness away from home.
"When you go on the road, it's just the having the mind set of what we have to do, to execute both offensively and defensively," he said. "You've got to really keep your composure, and sharpen your thinking. If they're on a 6-0 run, then let's make sure we get a great shot - I think those things are more the mental side of it than anything else."
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