The Ohio State basketball knows the result when it goes into a game unprepared against Illinois. It happened once already this season, and the Illini handed the Buckeyes a humbling 74-55 loss in early January.
This time when No. 14-ranked Ohio State hosts Illinois in Value City Arena on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., it knows better than to allow that to happen again even though it probably would have a better excuse for being distracted by outside factors.
That’s because the Buckeyes understand that if they beat the Illini and then No. 7 Michigan defeats No. 2 Indiana in a game later in the afternoon that they’ll win a piece of their fourth consecutive Big Ten title.
But don’t ask Ohio State if it is ready to root for the Wolverines just yet.
“I'll be honest, I just want to play well and that is where our focus is completely,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “We would be foolish to think past 12:30 on Sunday. That’s all we have ever done. We have one more game to play to end the regular season and that is the only thing that is on my mind and hopefully the only thing on our players’ minds.”
The fact that Ohio State could play itself into a tie for the Big Ten title seems like something just short of miraculous considering where it was only a few weeks ago.
The Buckeyes seemingly hit rock bottom when they were blown out by Wisconsin by a 71-49 score on Feb. 17, a game after which players admitted they had embarrassed their program after abandoning core defensive principles.
It wasn’t only the blowout nature of the loss that seemed to signify the end to Ohio State’s reign atop the Big Ten conference that has spanned the last three seasons. It also had the math to back it up, as the Buckeyes fell three games behind first-place Indiana with only five games remaining in the regular season.
But Ohio State never stopped chasing its long shot of a dream, winning its next four games, including triumph at home against then-No. 4 Michigan State and most recently a victory over No. 2 Indiana in Bloomington on Tuesday to keep its chances at a share of the conference title alive.
A team that has come this far could seem destined to complete the astounding comeback, but Ohio State’s lone senior refuses to look past an Illinois team that has already proven it can beat the Buckeyes this season.
“The Big Ten is the best league in the country, so it's a good feeling (to be in contention),” said center Evan Ravenel, OSU’s lone senior who will play his final home game of his career on Sunday. “But we’ve got to get this game on Sunday at 12:30. I am not focused on what everybody else does.”
If Ohio State wins and Michigan does beat Indiana, that would create a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings. If Michigan State also wins at home against Northwestern, the Spartans would join the party and the conference crown would be share by all four teams.
But if the Big Ten has proven anything this season, it’s that harsh results are delivered to the teams that take wins for granted. Matta hopes his Buckeyes won’t fall into the same trap they did just after the New Year.
“The one thing I've told them is that you can’t win anything if we don’t win on Sunday,” Matta said. “You're playing (an Illinois) team that literally destroyed us on Jan. 5, and quite honestly, there hasn't been a whole lot more conversation than that.”
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