March 15, 2013

Buckeyes tip off Big Ten Tournament

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

CHICAGO -- When the Big Ten Tournament resumes today with its second round, eight conference teams will take the court in hopes of advancing to one of Saturday's semifinals. And while it may not hold this weekend's No. 1 seed, perhaps no team in the league can claim to be any hotter than Ohio State (23-7, 13-5).

Riding a Big Ten best active five-game winning streak, the Buckeyes will serve as the tournament's No. 2 s seed when they face off with Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. (ET) tonight at Chicago's United Center. OSU's recent string of success may not have earned it this weekend' top seed- that belongs to the league's regular season champion, Indiana- but it did earn the Buckeyes a bye in Thursday's first round.

All things considered, that's not too shabby for a squad that just a mere month ago found itself in fifth place of the Big Ten standings following a 71-49 thrashing at the hands of Wisconsin. Since that mauling in Madison, the Buckeyes have reeled off five consecutive wins, including victories over then fourth-ranked Michigan State and a second-ranked Hoosiers team in Bloomington.

OSU's past month of work put them in a position to be in the Big Ten championship race until the final day of the season, which was enough to excite head coach Thad Matta heading into the one-and-done season that is March Madness.

"I told our guys, we've gotta be one of the hottest teams in college basketball right now, just because of who we've played and where we've won and when we had to win and those types of things," Matta said. "I like where this team is."

While they missed out on a piece of a fourth consecutive regular season conference crown, this weekend will give the Buckeyes an opportunity to play for the league's tournament title. And history says that Matta's squad will be here until the very end.

Since Matta arrived in Columbus in 2004, only twice has Ohio State failed to reach the conference tournament's title game. Having won three of his six Big Ten championship game appearances, Matta said that he aims to use weekends like these to maintain the momentum that his teams often possess this time of year.

"You're at that stage now where coming off of what you did last week, the emotional highs of you put yourself to have a chance to win the Big Ten championship," Matta said. "I don't want to take them back up, and then have to bring them back up."

But before the Buckeyes can worry about advancing to a fourth consecutive league title game- or even a semifinals matchup with either Michigan State or Iowa- they must first focus on their battle with the Cornhuskers.

The Big Ten Tournament's No. 10 seed, Nebraska is coming fresh off of a Thursday 57-55 upset of No. 7 seed Purdue. Leading the Huskers over the Boilermakers was swingman Shavon Shields, who scored 19 points in the Nebraska victory.

Ohio State swept its regular season series with the Huskers, defeating them in Columbus by a score of 70-44 on Jan. 2 and then 63-56 in Lincoln on Feb. 2. Nebraska coach Tim Miles said that his team's second outing against the Buckeyes gives him reason to believe that tonight could mark the Huskers' second upset win in as many days.

"Hey, that game was a game down the stretch. And we were right there. And a few other things go our way, we could have come out on top. And that's what you have to cling to. That's what you have to build your case on," Miles said. "Our guys will be ready to go. I think they will be locked in and their hearts are fresher than their legs, but I think that's going to be all right. We'll just play a low possession game and see what happens."

Knocking off Nebraska will be just the first challenge for the Buckeyes this weekend as they try to advance to another conference title game and perhaps lock up another No. 2 seed in next weekend's NCAA Tournament. Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, however, remains confident that the Buckeyes will have their eye on one goal and one goal only tonight.

"You go into any tournament trying to win. That goes back to when you first start playing basketball. It brings you back to the AAU days, just trying to play as many games as you can," Craft said. "If we're playing a game, we want to win. We're not thinking about what's coming down the road."

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