COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Ohio State Buckeyes continue to stay red hot as they clinched the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament with a 68-55 win over Illinois (21-11, 8-10) behind 19 points by Deshaun Thomas in what could be his final home game in the scarlet and gray. Aaron Craft had 14 points and lone senior Evan Ravenel had seven points in his final home game.
The Buckeyes also are now in position for a share of the Big Ten title depending on the outcome of the game between Indiana and Michigan. A loss by the Hoosiers would give Ohio State a split of the title but Indiana has locked up the No. 1 seed in the tournament regardless of the outcome of the game. Thad Matta and his players did their best to be non-committal over watching the game between the two rivals.
I will be honest with you… there is an old say that the hay is in the barn," Matta said. "From my perspective there is nothing that I can do and the sun is still up, I might go fishing."
None of the speculation would have mattered if Ohio State didn't hold up its end of the bargain and secure the win on Sunday and even the series with the Illini after Ohio State lost by 19 the first time the two teams played. It was only a month ago that some critics were writing Ohio State off after a bad loss in Madison (Wis.) against the Badgers and now the team is being mentioned as a potential three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"It had been a heck of a stretch coming from where we started… to now," Matta said. "They have kept practicing, kept the energy and kept their focus. I like where we are right now, winning five straight games is hard to do in college basketball."
The Illini were paced by 21 points for Brandon Paul before he fouled out in the final minute of the game. D.J. Richardson had ten points for former Ohio State assistant head coach and current Illinois head coach John Groce. But ultimately it was first half foul trouble that opened the door for Ohio State when both Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin both picked up two fouls and Ohio State was able to go to a smaller lineup and make a 9-0 run that erased a one point Illini lead and gave Ohio State an eight point lead and eventually a nine point lead going to halftime.
"We didn't have it for the first 12 minutes of the game," Matta said. "We had an odd look and we had one timeout where I literally sat there and crossed my legs and said, 'alright, we have tried your way how about we try the Ohio State way.'"
Matta and the sellout crowd were happy with the fact that Ohio State shot 50-percent in the first half of the game but on the negative side the team was 50-percent from the free throw line as well (6-12). The Buckeyes would go on to shoot 47-percent from the field for the entire game but an uncharacteristic 4-15 from beyond the arc.
Thomas scored 12 of his game high 19 in the second half and many people wanted to know if he had any thoughts about his future after the game.
"There is a lot more basketball left," Thomas said. "I am trying to enjoy myself and get to the Final Four. All I am thinking about is my teammates and my coaches."
The Buckeyes play again on Friday at the United Center at 6:30pm (ET) against the winner of the Nebraska/Purdue game. The team will have close to a week to prepare but there won't be much more preparation time the rest of the way with a 'win or go home' set up with both tournaments.
"We are playing well right now but at the same time it is anyone's game once you get in these tournaments," Craft said.