March 10, 2013

Buckeyes heavily vested in Big Ten battle

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With all due respect to Tom Petty, for Ohio State, the waiting is not the hardest part.

For the next few hours, Buckeye fans will have their eyes locked in on a game between Indiana and Michigan- one that would hand Ohio State a share of its fourth consecutive Big Ten regular season championship with a Wolverines win. But even with so much riding on it, the Buckeyes are claiming to not be all that interested in a game that's taking place nearly 200 miles away.

"There's no point in worrying about what we have no control over," OSU guard Aaron Craft said. "Obviously, we'd love for it to happen, but if it doesn't, it's out of our hands. We did what we needed to do."

That type of attitude seems to come from the top of the Ohio State program, where Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta refused to take the bait on any questions regarding the ongoing matchup in Ann Arbor. Having just beaten Illinois to lock up the No. 2 seed in next weekend's Big Ten Tournament, Matta went back to a mantra from his childhood to remind himself that what ever happens tonight is out of his control.

"Where I grew up, there's an old saying: the hay's in the barn," Matta said. "From my perspective, there's not a thing I can do."

For a team just three weeks removed from a 71-49 loss at the hands of Wisconsin, the fact that the Buckeyes are still in play for a regular season championship seems almost unfathomable. Since that mauling in Madison, Ohio State has reeled off five consecutive wins, the longest active win streak in all of the Big Ten.

With a 13-5 record in league play- the same mark that won the Buckeyes a share of last season's conference crown- OSU has picked up wins over two top-five teams in Michigan State and Indiana in the past two weeks. Still needing help from Michigan to force what would be at least a three-way for the Big Ten title, Matta is at peace knowing that he's taking one of the hottest teams in the country into the one-and-done season that is March Madness.

"I'll be honest, I'm so proud of this basketball team. As I told them, a lot of had this team dead to rites a month ago. They haven't lost since then," Matta said. "What these guys have been able to do, I couldn't prouder of them."

What has led to the Buckeyes' recent success in the past three weeks can be attributed to a number of factors. Ohio State has benefitted from the improved play of sophomore guard Shannon Scott, as well as a small ball lineup that has seen Matta play Deshaun Thomas at center in order to get his five best players on the floor.

But perhaps more than anything, it was the wakeup call that the Buckeyes received in the form of a 22-point beat down at the hands of the Badgers that has gotten their season back on track.

"We went into the Wisconsin game and we weren't ready to play. You could tell from how we warmed up," OSU center Evan Ravenel said. "We knew what the problem was. It wasn't a personnel thing."

While Ohio State is hitting its stride at the right time of the year, it also wouldn't hurt to add a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship banner to the Schottenstein Center rafters. That feat- one that hasn't been accomplished in the league since Michigan State won four conference titles from 1998-2001- isn't possible for the Buckeyes without a Wolverines win over the Hoosiers today, which is why Thomas finally relented and admitted that he's curious about the outcome of the game between two of OSU's biggest basketball rivals.

"I might check it out a little bit," Thomas said with a smile.

It's a safe bet that he won't be the only one associated with the Ohio State program doing so.


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