March 5, 2013

Buckeyes not out of title hunt

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Given where it was a mere two weeks ago, the No. 14 Ohio State men's basketball team couldn't ask to be in a better situation heading into the final week of its regular season.

After all, it was just 16 days ago that the Buckeyes suffered a 71-49 loss at the hands of Wisconsin- the program's worst defeat in more than three years- and found themselves in fifth place in the Big Ten standings, trailing league leaders Indiana and Michigan State by three games. But thanks to a three-game winning streak and some help around the conference, OSU enters its final week of Big Ten play with a chance to win a share of the conference crown for the fourth time in as many years.

"We've definitely had some ups and we've certainly had our downs this year," OSU point guard Aaron Craft said. "That's the crazy thing about basketball. We still have two games left and we're playing for something that we probably didn't think we'd be playing for a month ago."

No team has won a share of four consecutive Big Ten regular season championships since Michigan State did it from 1998-2001, but the Buckeyes will be able to accomplish just that should they win their two remaining games against Indiana and Illinois and then receive some help on Sunday. Of course holding up its own end of the bargain will be easier said than done.

In the second-ranked Hoosiers, the Buckeyes will be facing a team on Tuesday that beat them on their own home court by a score of 81-68 less than a month ago. Playing at Indiana's Assembly Hall will only making facing the Hoosiers more difficult on Tuesday night, as will the fact that they're playing for their first outright Big Ten regular season championship since 1993.

"They're going to be fired up. They know if they win this game, they could be cutting down some nets and getting a title. I'm pretty sure they're going to be ready," OSU forward Deshaun Thomas said. "We're going to have to try to come in and take that. We're gonna have to compete with them and match their intensity."

Having already clinched a share of the league title, Indiana is led by a duo of National Player of the Year candidates in junior guard Victor Oladipo and sophomore center Cody Zeller. Along with senior Christian Watford, the Hoosiers' top trio of scorers combined to score 70 points during its trip to Columbus last month, and will look for similar success tonight.

Should Ohio State manage to escape Bloomington with a victory tonight and then defeat Illinois on Sunday, the Buckeyes will then be forced to perform the sacrilegious act of rooting for Michigan while the Wolverines take on Indiana in the season finale for both teams. Should that situation play out, roles will be reversed from a year ago, when it was Michigan cheering on Ohio State to defeat Michigan State so that the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Spartans would all walk away with a share of the regular season title.

"We've made our bed regardless, we have to sleep in it. That's why I don't put a ton of stock into what other teams are doing. We've never really worried about that," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Obviously if it comes to that, we'll be rooting for (Michigan)."

Of course before Ohio State has to worry about cheering on its rivals, it must first take care of business inside Assembly Hall tonight. With the Hoosiers favored by 8.5 points and playing for an outright conference crown, the Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them, but would much rather be in this situation than the alternative given where they were two weeks ago.

"We was in the same position last year. We had a three-way tie and we've got a chance to do it again," Thomas said. "It feels great. This league is so big and there's a lot of upsets and now it's coming down to us. We're in a great position right now."


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