Eight months ago the Ohio State men`s basketball team was battling one of the nation`s top programs every time it stepped on the court. Of course, the Buckeyes were considered most of those teams` equal, and proved it by finishing as national runner-up in the NCAA Tournament.
But Ohio State lost its top two players from that team - freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley - and tonight will be unranked when it faces Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina, the No. 1 team in the nation.
"Playing North Carolina will be an experience for us," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. "We need to learn to tie our offense to the defense so when the ball isn`t going in the net, like against Texas A&M (a 70-47 loss), we can generate points off our defense."
The game will be part of the ninth annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and will take place in Columbus after the Buckeyes traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., for last season`s matchup. Ohio State lost 98-89 to the Tar Heels in that game, but Oden, the Buckeyes` phenom center, sat on the bench in street clothes during the game.
This year, Ohio State will have freshman 7-footer Kosta Koufos under the basket to try and slow down Hansbrough - who averaged 24.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a game during North Carolina`s run through last week`s Las Vegas Invitational.
"With a guy like that, you just try to contain him," Buckeyes guard Jamar Butler said. "It`s going to take all five guys out on the floor to work together to contain him.
"Kosta`s a great player, too -- they`re both great players. But I think it`s going to end up being a team thing."
While Matta had great praise for Hansbrough, the first guy he discussed when the North Carolina game was brought up this week was Ty Lawson, the Tar Heels` lightning-quick point guard.
"Ty Lawson is one of the best point guards in the country," Matta said. "He adds more speed to an already up-tempo game and is shooting the ball well. In watching him play this season, I can see the improvements he has made and the maturity. He`s a lot more confident in what he is doing out there."
There`s no doubt Lawson, who Butler said is so quick that "he can go the length of the court in about three dribbles," is right behind Hansbrough on the Buckeyes` list of North Carolina`s top players. But the sophomore suffered a right ankle injury two minutes into North Carolina`s win over BYU in the Vegas championship game, and won`t start tonight in Columbus.
"We talked yesterday and I told him I would hope that he`d be able to do some things the same," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "We`re not going to know anything until we see how he works in practice (Tuesday)."
Junior Bobby Frasor will get the start and senior Quentin Thomas will help out off the bench, a situation that Williams said is not ideal for the Tar Heels.
"Ty gives you such a threat with his ability to push the ball and get it to the rim and finish plays," Williams said. "Not having him in the lineup terribly changes our team.
"If Bobby and Quentin play the point, it still says North Carolina. We can`t go up there and say, â€˜OK, Ty`s a little hurt so you have to give us 16 points to start with.` It makes no difference. Whoever can play, that`s who we have to play with."
Williams said Frasor may be a better defensive player than Lawson but even the 6-3 guard knows the team is different with him running the offense.
"Ty brings that quickness and speed that everyone sees, especially in the open court and in fast-break situations," Frasor said. "With me, we don`t have that explosiveness we have with Ty, because I try to push the ball up the court with a pass and move the ball that way. It`s just another way to get the ball down the court."
The Buckeyes are hoping to do their part in helping the Big Ten win the challenge for the first time. Ohio State owns a 2-4 record in the annual event, and hasn`t won since a 69-56 victory over Virginia Tech in 2005.
"It`s probably gotta be getting to them now, I mean as long as it`s been going on," Frasor said of the Big Ten schools beginning to sweat never having won the Challenge. "I looked at the matchups, though, a couple days ago and I thought it was going to be close this year."
Frasor may have been just paying lip service, because when asked which of the two leagues he thought was stronger there wasn`t much hesitation.
"I think the ACC is definitely the best conference in basketball," he said.
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: No. 1 North Carolina (5-0) vs. Ohio State (4-1)
WHERE: Value City Arena, Columbus
TV/RADIO: ESPN; WKNR 850-AM