Rob's Buckeye Basketball Notebook
By Rob Ogden
With six regular season games to go, the Buckeyes find themselves in an unfamiliar position: out of the race for the regular season Big Ten title.
Ohio State currently sits four games back, with four teams ahead of it in the standings, leaving virtually no chance that the Buckeyes could win their sixth regular-season crown under coach Thad Matta.
But there's still a lot to play for, junior guard Sam Thompson said Friday, as Ohio State prepared to face struggling Illinois in Assembly Hall Saturday evening.
"The focus changes a little bit," Thompson said. "We talked about it a little yesterday. We're all used to being in a position where we're fighting for a Big Ten championship. Now that we can no longer control our destiny, we have to play for another cause. We've definitely talked about it. We know what we're playing for."
Specifically, the Buckeyes are still playing for one of 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State would like to add a few more quality wins to its resume to point to come March. But of course, the only sure way of qualifying for the tournament is to win a conference tournament. That becomes a more difficult task without a first-round bye, especially since the Buckeyes have already shown they're susceptible to losing to any team in the league.
"We don't feel like we've done enough to put ourselves in position where we can say if the season ended today, we're hands down in the (NCAA) tournament," Thompson said. "We want to get to the tournament. We don't want to play on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament. We obviously want to win the Big Ten tournament. It's about sending that message every time we step on the floor."
Illinois Homecoming Hasn't Been Kind
Both Matta and Thompson are Illinois natives, Matta of Hoopeston and Thompson of Chicago.The home state hasn't been particularly kind to the two of late.
The Buckeyes have dropped each of the past two trips to Assembly Hall, last year falling by the score of 74-55.
"That's actually a very unspecial arena for me," Thompson said. "I've never won at Assembly Hall so I don't have very fond memories of playing Illinois. Right now my only focus is getting win. It's a must-win game for us and for them."
Asked what has made Illinois a difficult place to win, Matta said it's more about the team than it is the venue.
"Sometimes they have really good teams," he said. "Hopefully they take that as a little bit of a challenge."
Rattling off the best atmospheres in the Big Ten, Thompson said Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa, but excluded the home-state Illini.
"They definitely have a great basketball environment down in Champaign. I never really thought about their student section that much, so it leads me to believe they don't have a real affect on the outcome of the game," he said.
But hostile environments haven't bothered the Buckeyes on their past two trips away from home, as they earned wins at Wisconsin and Iowa.
There's something about playing on the road that gets the team going, Thompson said.
"We're kind of a different team on the road," he said. "I can't figure it out, but we have a different way about us on the road. In crunch time, when we need that stop, when we need that bucket, we've shown that we're capable of doing it."
Whatever allowed the Buckeyes to play so well in those past two road games wasn't there throughout the month of January, when Ohio State dropped all three road contests.
Matta said it's just a different demeanor.
"We're gonna need that (Saturday)," he said, "That's been addressed and talked about."
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