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Ohio State's youngsters growing as leaders

Unlike last season’s squad, Ohio State encountered a few unexpected hurdles once Big Ten play commenced late last month. The Buckeyes lost to both Illinois and Indiana on the road in the first few weeks of the Big Ten slate.

Those losses prompted questions about Ohio State’s anticipated dominance in the deep league. The Buckeyes have proven some doubters wrong, however, during their current four-game winning streak.

Thad Matta wasn’t surprised by his team’s early struggles. The Buckeyes’ youth was overlooked by some observers, he said.

“I think this, I think from the standpoint of -- and I say this all the time -- people forget how young this basketball team is and I don’t,” Matta said during Monday’s Big Ten media teleconference. “And I think that sometimes it takes getting knocked down to kind of open your eyes and see what’s going on around you.”

Last year’s Ohio State team was bolstered by the experience of its veterans. David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler formed a corp of talented, experienced leaders who stabilized an Ohio State squad that didn’t lose its first game of the year until mid-February.

This year’s Ohio State team -- based on the development of Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft -- might be more talented. But, its youngsters (the team has 11 freshmen and sophomores) are still developing as leaders.

But Matta said he’s watched his young squad grow in recent weeks.

“I think we’re learning to practice more efficiently, we’re learning to practice with more of a sense of purpose of what our team needs and what we need to do in terms of preparation,” said Matta, whose squad faces the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison Saturday. “Those are things that can make a difference for a basketball team.”

Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten. And with their versatility, they’re certainly capable of competing for the national title.

Sullinger is averaging 18.1 ppg and 8.9 rpb in conference play. Craft has a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. William Buford (14.0 ppg) and Thomas (12.8 ppg) are 12th and 17th respectively in scoring in the Big Ten.

Three of those standouts (all except Buford), however, are sophomores. So their gradual grasp of their responsibilities prior to tipoff each week is significant, too, Matta said.

“Today’s youth, it’s hard to lead. It’s a challenge from that standpoint. But I give our guys credit. I think we’ve got great kids in the program, great character,” Matta said. “And they’re starting to see the bigger picture. That there’s more to it than just going out and playing basketball. Obviously, those guys are doing a good job of providing that leadership.”