COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- No one is criticizing this Ohio State team for playing a weak schedule, that's for certain.
The Buckeyes have two games this week. The first is Tuesday night at No. 11 Michigan State, perhaps the toughest venue in the Big Ten with fans seething to get back at them after they came in and stole games each of the last two years.
Then in a game that is hardly a respite from the rigors of the conference grind, the Buckeyes get to hit the road again on Saturday to face another vengeful crowd at No. 6 Tennessee.
Think the Volunteers will be looking past Ohio State to upcoming games against Kentucky and Georgia? Think again. The Buckeyes beat Tennessee twice last year, once by two points at home during the regular season and then again on a comeback from a 20-point deficit to take a heart-stopping one-point decision in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta recognizes that both teams figure they owe the Buckeyes.
"No question. That's just part of winning," he said. "It's probably the same way we felt two years ago when we went to Michigan State and hadn't won there forever, or 14 years I think it was. That's going to come with the territory of having two Big Ten championships behind you. That's going to be wherever we go. Then there's the irony of playing Tennessee, a team that we played in two of maybe the best college games of the year last year."
First things first. The Buckeyes (12-4, 3-1 Big Ten) will get what Matta calls their biggest test of the season Tuesday night against the Spartans (12-4, 3-1).
The Breslin Center will never be mistaken for a neutral court. The fans in the Izzone, named for Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, constantly rage at visiting players, calling them names and offering a few opinions about their closest relatives.
For a visiting team, playing in Breslin is about like running a gauntlet.
"It's very hard," sophomore swingman David Lighty said with a grin. "The student section is wild. All the fans are wild. They're going to be on your back about everything, talking about you and things like that. They're not going to make it easy for you. Plus, Michigan State is a good team, so that makes it even that much harder."
The Buckeyes are coming off their first loss in 20 Big Ten games, falling 75-68 at Purdue on Saturday. Michigan State also lost its last start, a stunning 43-36 loss at lowly Iowa on Saturday night. Iowa (8-9, 1-3) had been humiliated a few nights earlier at Ohio State, 79-48.
Such is the nature of the sport, Matta said.
"Honestly, when you get into a conference race, a game like that shows you how college basketball is today," he said.
The Buckeyes must find a way to get 7-foot freshman center Kosta Koufos more involved in the game. Koufos, who prefers to play away from and facing the basket, has been getting pushed and shoved whenever he comes close to the paint. So far, he has yet to push and shove back as Big Ten centers learn to do to survive and succeed.
"The Big Ten is a league of physicality," he said. "I just have to get my mind right for every game and stay within myself and play through everything."
A year ago, the Buckeyes -- who graduated five of their top six players from last year's team -- used the win over Tennessee to get into a regional final with Memphis and won to go to its first Final Four since 1968. They beat Georgetown in the national semifinals and then lost to Florida 84-75 in their first title game appearance since 1962.
There will undoubtedly be some taunts of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" since the Ohio State football team, ridiculed for playing a soft schedule, was beaten by LSU 38-24 in the national championship game last week. Tennessee, LSU and, for that matter, Florida are all Southeastern Conference members.
Suffice it to say that Matta would prefer to have a week off, or maybe schedule a win against some lesser light, than take his team before another hostile audience that wants some payback.
"I can't change it. It's one of those games where you've got to go down and play it," he said. "It's always good every now and then to play a game like this out of the Big Ten season, but now that we've gone to 18 (conference) games, I'm not sold it's the best place."