COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Following a closer than expected win over Winthrop on Tuesday that saw Ohio State trail the Eagles five minutes into the second half, I asked Aaron Craft if a wakeup call was what the No. 7-ranked Buckeyes needed heading into their primetime matchup with No. 9 Kansas this Saturday (4 p.m., CBS).
Ohio State's mild-mannered point guard dismissed my attempt at a positive premise immediately.
"If we need a wakeup call to get ready for this game, I don't think we should be playing in it anyway," Craft said. "Every team that we play, we try to take it one game at a time, this game was no different, Kansas is going to be no different either. If we're not ready to play with what's at stake, the past that we have, I'm not sure what type of basketball team we're going to be."
With conference play having yet to begin, it may seem as though Craft's assessment of what the Buckeyes have on the line this Saturday is a bit of a stretch. But regardless of current rankings and program traditions, the recent history that Ohio State has had with Kansas is reason enough to justify the bullseye that the Buckeyes have placed on the Jayhawks' backs.
It started last December at Allen Fieldhouse, in the first matchup of the home-and-home series that will proceed on Saturday. With OSU's two-time All-American Jared Sullinger out with back spasms, the Buckeyes fell to Kansas by a score of 78-67.
That game marked the first loss of Ohio State's 2011-12 season, but perhaps fresher on the Buckeyes' minds is the fact that the Jayhawks also handed them their last.
Less than four months later, the two teams met again for a surprise rematch on the country's biggest stage. Squaring off in the Final Four with the right to play in the national title game on the line, Ohio State had its chance to extract revenge on Kansas inside of New Orleans' Superdome. And after the Buckeyes took a 34-25 lead into halftime, they appeared poised to do just that.
But after a second half collapse that saw OSU outscored 39-28, it was again Kansas who had the last laugh, beating the Buckeyes by a score of 64-62 and ending their season in the process.
OSU coach Thad Matta said that he's seldom brought up the Buckeyes' two losses to the Jayhawks last season as a rallying point for this year's team, but mostly because he hasn't had to.
"The offseason's always been about us and us getting individually better," Matta said. "Our guys know that Kansas ended our season last year and I think they know the storied history of the program and what we walked into when we went in there last year."
What Matta has mentioned about the Jayhawks, however, is their ability to close out games. Sporting a 9-1 record, Kansas has rattled off eight consecutive wins since its 67-64 loss to Michigan State in its second game of the season.
Led by freshman guard Ben McLemore and senior center Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks have defeated their past eight opponents by an average margin of victory of 23 points. Matta would likely to see similar types of efforts out of his Buckeyes, who have won five consecutive games since their Nov. 28 loss to Duke, but were plagued by a slow start against Winthrop and were outscored in the final 17 minutes of their Dec. 15 matchup with UNC-Asheville.
"That's what practice is for," Matta said of his team's need for improvement.
After having its season-opener with Marquette cancelled and the aforementioned loss to the Blue Devils, Saturday will give Ohio State its final opportunity to pick up a win over a BCS conference school before it begins what should be one of the most rigorous Big Ten schedules in recent memory. That hasn't been lost on Deshaun Thomas, who's curious to see how far the Buckeyes have come since their loss to Duke.
"We've played good teams, but we really didn't play that good competition team after Duke," OSU's junior forward and leading scorer said. "Now we're going to try to show and let people know that we can play these type of competition teams. We're trying to come out against Kansas and play hard and play to our best ability."
Given the history that these two teams have shared over the past 12 months, the Buckeyes shouldn't expect to need any less to finally beat the Jayhawks.