Starting Five: Buckeyes Gearing Up to Defend Tournament Title
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After picking up perhaps its most impressive win of the season—a 72-70 road victory at Michigan State to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title—Ohio State is now starting at the second part of its three-part mission.
A tie-breaker gave the No. 7-ranked Buckeyes (25-6, 13-5) the No. 3-seed in this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State will tip-off at approximately 9 p.m. ET on Friday against the winner of Thursday’s match-up between No. 6-seed Purdue and No. 11-seed Nebraska. The game will air live on the Big Ten Network.
Back On Track
Sunday’s victory, which included a game-winning shot from senior guard William Buford, appeared to be a turning point in what has lately been an up-and-down season for the Buckeyes. Despite the momentum shift that a third-consecutive Big Ten title gave Ohio State, coach Thad Matta said his team has to continue to do the things that got it to this point.
“Yesterday, in practice, one squad was phenomenal. The other squad wasn’t as good as it needed to be,” Matta said.
“You hope that they were continuing to understand, continuing to know how important practice is to this team.”
Matta eventually revealed that the squad that was “phenomenal” included the starting group, but another player who came up big against the Spartans was reserve forward Evan Ravenel.
The fourth-year junior scored seven points in eight minutes of playing time. As one of the team’s only upperclassmen, Ravenel said he’s noticed a maturation in his team over the recent weeks.
“When we play hard in practice, we play hard in games and get wins,” Ravenel said.
“Our minds have gotten a lot better towards the game.”
That maturity will be put to the test when the Buckeyes enter a one-and-done format this weekend for the first time all season. Matta admitted that there are some vast differences in preparing for a weekend tournament, as opposed to just a single opponent.
“Working on ourselves. And then along those lines, looking at what both teams do,” he said.
“So on Thursday night when we find out who we’re playing, we can say ‘this is what we’ve been working on, here it is on tape, this is what we have to do.’”
A 9 p.m. tip-off will be a stark difference for Matta, whose team’s have yet to play in a Friday night game during the Big Ten Tournament, but Ravenel said that the late start time doesn’t really matter to the players, who just want to play.
“I don’t really care. It’s just basketball to me,” Ravenel said.
“It has its pros and its cons...I don’t have a problem playing at 9.”
While winning the tournament would give the Buckeyes a record three-consecutive Big Ten Tournament titles, it doesn’t appear that it will do much to affect their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. They seem to be firmly locked into a No. 2 seed, regardless of what happens this weekend.
Matta said that the fact that no Big Ten team is projected to be one of the four No. 1 seeds in this year’s tournament is a testament to the toughness of the league.
“We did a nice job with beating each other up,” Matta said.
“You didn’t have that dominating performance by anybody in the league because 13-5 won it.”
Should OSU earn a No. 2 seed as it is expected to, it will mark the fifth time in Matta’s eight seasons in Columbus that his team has earned a top-2 seed for the tournament. Having already coached two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, Matta said there isn’t much difference between the two slots.
“I haven’t seen it if it is,” Matta said.
“Being a one-seed a few years ago and it takes us overtime to win from the 8/9 game, so I don’t know if there’s a huge difference.”
As is the case with most teams at this point in the season, the Buckeyes have been struggling to stay healthy. Most notably, point guard Aaron Craft has been hobbled at some point during each of the past three games. Matta said that Craft is good to go, but that his injury can be re-aggravated.
“It all depends on if it gets hit,” Matta said.
“When it turns a certain way, there’s some pain- excruciating pain- involved. But he kind of plays his way, it goes away. I don’t know how much it’s affected him. He wouldn’t tell me if it did.”
Matta also said that Deshaun Thomas—who appeared to temporarily injure his shoulder on Sunday—is good to go for the Big Ten Tournament. Regarding forward Jared Sullinger, who has had back and foot issues throughout the season, Matta deferred to Ravenel, who is Sullinger’s roommate.
“I don’t see anything wrong with him,” Ravenel said.
“He don’t tell me nothing hurts. He just comes out and plays basketball every time.”
In addition to an injury update, Wednesday also gave Matta his first public platform to respond to the Big Ten’s postseason awards that were given out on Monday.
Sullinger earned first team All-Big Ten honors, while Buford and Thomas earned second-team honors, and Craft was named the league’s defensive player of the year.
“It’s obviously a tremendous honor for all those guys, we’re very happy for them,” Matta said.
“You look across the board at who’s on those teams, the caliber of players that are on there. It is a great honor.”
Despite the plethora of Buckeyes on the Big Ten’s awards list, Matta said that there are bigger goals in mind for his team, starting with this weekend.
“Having a Big Ten championship is far more important than any of those awards,” Matta said.