COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—For three years in a row, Ohio State coach Thad Matta started each season building a team from scratch.
Kids leaving for the NBA after just one college season, graduations and transfers had decimated the roster. Continuity and unity took a beating.
“It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to go into a season knowing that you’re going to count on guys who really haven’t proven themselves,” Matta said Tuesday.
Still, the most difficult aspect for Matta was what the lack of shared experiences meant later on. Because there was so much turnover—five players who played one season left for the NBA in a three-year span) there was never a feeling of camaraderie.
This year, the Buckeyes returned almost everyone. They hang out together, live together, laugh together—and play pretty well together, too.
The No. 9 Buckeyes (20-6, 10-3) meet No. 4 Purdue (21-3, 9-3) on Wednesday night, with the loser falling a game off the pace in the Big Ten race. Ohio State has won its last nine conference games, the Boilermakers their last seven.
The Buckeyes are undoubtedly talented—led by national player of the year candidate Evan Turner—but they believe what has helped them over rough spots in a game or the season has been their friendship.
“We do all have the same personalities,” center Dallas Lauderdale said. “We watch the same TV shows, the same DVDs and we like the same thing— basketball, pretty much. I can’t really describe it. It’s a crazy feeling. But we like each other.”
They’re a likable bunch. They don’t have chips on their shoulder, they’re intelligent and they enjoy talking about what they do.
Asked what the Buckeyes have going for them right now, Turner doesn’t hesitate.
“Our chemistry. We execute our stuff, make shots,” he said. “We’re definitely just clicking. We have an idea of what we need to do to be successful.”
Turner, averaging 19 points, 9.4 rebounds and 6 assists a game, is more than a good teammate.
“Evan Turner makes plays,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He’s very efficient, probably the best in the country at doing that.”
The teams met in one of the strangest games you’ll see back on Jan. 12 in West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue’s Robbie Hummel hit eight 3s and scored 29 points on the Buckeyes while the Boilermakers took a 41-29 halftime lead. But Turner turned the tables in the second half, scoring a career-high 32 points including 14 of Ohio State’s final 18 points in a 70-66 win.
“Our game really helped them, the last 10 minutes of the game,” Painter said. “They made a great run and won the game. That’s kind of the confidence they needed to get going.”
No one needs to be told what’s riding on this meeting.
“We all know what’s at stake without it being said,” Ohio State’s David Lighty said. “That’s something that comes from everyone being in the system already, everyone going through a Big Ten season and everyone knowing what it’s like to be in these games.”
Both teams should be a full strength. Lewis Jackson, Purdue’s best ballhandler, didn’t play in the first meeting because of a foot injury but he’ll be on hand this time.
Ohio State got a scare in Sunday’s 19-point win at Illinois when shooting guard Jon Diebler fell hard on his right wrist late in the game. He wore a wrap on it during drills on Tuesday, but was expected to be ready to play. The same is true for swingman William Buford, who was hurting after a deep leg bruise suffered against the Illini.
Veterans fill out both lineup cards. Purdue starts three juniors, Ohio State four. Both have grown accustomed to squaring off in big games.
Matta finds some reassurance in the fact that this might be the most cohesive team he’s had at Ohio State.
“You think about how much basketball these guys play in the offseason together, how much time they spend together, and it’s comforting to know that that can come together,” he said.