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December 21, 2013

New York, New York

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There will be no Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Rockefeller Center for Ohio State and that's fine by Lenzelle Smith Jr. for one reason.

"If we come out with a W I guess we'll both conclude that we had the greatest time in New York even though we probably won't get to see it," the senior guard said.

"At the end of the day, this game kinda balances Christmas for us -- nobody wants to have a bad Christmas so we need to make sure we get done what we prepared to do."

The No. 3/2-ranked Buckeyes, though, will get to see at least one famed landmark of one of the world's largest cities when they play Notre Dame as part of their last bout in the Black Rock Gotham Classic Saturday night.

"Everyone knows what Madison Square Garden is. It's in movies everyone just knows what it is," senior guard Aaron Craft said.

And when it comes to basketball, no other arena compares. Perhaps no other city compares.

"New York has always been one of those places where you've heard of your most outstanding players some of the greatest basketball players of all time have always traveled through cities like Chicago and New York and I guess New York just got its name," Smith Jr. said.

"It's some magic in that building and I hope we can experience that on Saturday."

Maybe it's obvious why they call the city the mecca of basketball.

"People go and they play great games there. Great players, great games. We're just trying to not make a name for ourselves but hopefully just go out find a way to get a team win and just enjoy the moment much as possible," Craft said.

Such a moment will come on a court that's seen basketball greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play legendary games. It'll feel the same for Ohio State coach Thad Matta.

"I think quite honestly when the ball gets tossed up, I know for me personally as a coach I don't know if I'm in New York City, Los Angeles or Columbus, Ohio," he said. "I got a job to do and I think our guys are pretty much that way. I hope."

For as chronicled as Madison Square Garden is, the Buckeyes are rather used to playing in historical venues steeped in basketball lore.

"These guys, when you really stop and think about all the places they've played throughout their lives, it's just kind of another one," Matta said.

In just the last two years, most of Matta's crew were on teams that ventured to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the United Center in Chicago and the TD Garden in Boston. All are homes to storied professional organizations like the Lakers, the Bulls and the Celtics.

Matta, though, seems to concede there's an extra something special about what's called "The World's Most Famous Arena."

"I think it's kind of the mecca of basketball in terms of it's inevitable that you watch old-time games and it seems like half of them are in Madison Square Garden and being a little kid growing up and watching the Knicks," he said. "I think New York City, that sort of thing is a unique opportunity for these guys."

Matta carefully balances the hour with the task at hand.

"It's funny because I want the guys excited but I don't want them thinking in terms of that," he said. "It's more along the lines of what do we have to do to win the game and I think these guys -- with a veteran group -- they're pretty good at that."

Its contest against the Fighting Irish is Ohio State's last major bout -- and probably its last real barometer -- before opening Big Ten play against Purdue on Dec. 31 in West Lafayette, Ind.

"If we leave with a win, then we're gonna love New York," Craft said. "Maybe it'll get us to come back."

After all, the East Regional -- which will feature Sweet 16 and Elite 8 battles -- of this year's NCAA tournament will be held at Madison Square Garden in late March.

Of course, the Buckeyes will have to make it through the gauntlet that is conference play. Beating Notre Dame could prepare them accordingly.

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