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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With the regular season in the books, the No. 10 Ohio State men's basketball team has turned its attention towards this weekend's Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Before heading to the Windy City, where the Buckeyes will tipoff at 6:30 p.m. (ET) on Friday against the winner of Thursday's matchup between Purdue and Nebraska, Thad Matta and members of his team met with the media to preview the upcoming conference tournament.
Having won three tournament titles since Matta arrived at Ohio State in 2004, you'd have to go back to the 2007-08 season to find a time that the Buckeyes didn't participate in the Big Ten Tournament's Championship Game. While other schools may rest on their laurels, the Ohio State head coach that he uses the conference tournament season as an opportunity for his teams to maintain their momentum.
"I've never said we've got to win the Big Ten Tournament championship. It's just been like, 'Hey, let's go have some fun. Let's go play basketball over there and see what happens.' And it's worked to this point," Matta said. "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 ... I don't want to take them back up, and then have to bring them back up."
While the Buckeyes may not value a Big Ten Tournament championship as much as they do a regular season or NCAA title, OSU point guard Aaron Craft said that mindset goes out the window as soon as his team steps on the court.
"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."
Despite finishing second in the conference's regular season standings, the Buckeyes are perhaps the league's hottest team right now and are entering the tournament on a five-game winning streak. OSU forward Deshaun Thomas said that the key to his team's recent success has been a re-commitment to defense after its 71-49 loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
"I feel like we're playing awesome basketball right now. We're trusting the system and we're playing our roles," Thomas said. "We're just listening to the coach. We know when we come and play our best defense, we're the best defensive team in the country in my eyes. We just gotta keep it going. We know it could end, but all we gotta do is stay positive."
Matta, for his part, has been pleased with the growth of his team over the course of the past month, and is more inclined to consider the Buckeyes national title contenders than he was when the season started with Ohio State ranked as the fourth-best team in the country.
"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. I like where their mind is in terms of the togetherness, kind of the attention to detail and everything that involves preparing via practice, film, whatever it is. We try to keep hammering home that these are the types of things have to do to give ourselves a chance and I think that they're absorbing those more and more."
The end of the Big Ten season saw three Buckeyes honored with All-Big Ten selections, with both Thomas and Craft being named to the league's first-team, and Craft and Scott being named to the Big Ten's All-Defensive team. While pleased to see his players recognized, Matta admitted that he was stunned to see Craft passed over for a second consecutive Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award in favor of Indiana's Victor Oladipo.
"Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender- one of the best I've ever seen. But Aaron Craft's in a whole other world when it comes to defense," Matta said. "Aaron doesn't fly through the air and pin shots off the glass. He takes them from the guys' hands when he's on the floor ... Aaron Craft should be the national defender of the year, I don't care about the Big Ten."
Thomas certainly seems to agree with Matta, after calling his classmate the Buckeyes' most valuable player this season.
"He's the leader out there," Thomas said of Craft. "He gives it his all. Me sitting back, watching a guy who sacrifices his body, who don't get down when he misses a shot, is just always ready. That's great for me to look at him and say that's the MVP right there. He does it all."
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