Ohio State has come to accept that the only thing that separated it from what would have been a share of its fourth consecutive Big Ten regular season championship was an inch. An unfriendly roll. An unkind bounce.
It may as well have been a mile.
That’s because the Buckeyes aren’t Big Ten champions, regardless of how close they were to completing an unlikely comeback in the conference race. There’s no going back in time, and there is no event that can make up for what now is an empty spot in the program’s trophy case.
“The 18 games determines the Big Ten championship,” OSU coach Thad Matta said.
The Big Ten tournament – at least in Matta’s eyes – certainly doesn’t.
But what it could provide is the perfect forum for an OSU team that’s still out to prove it’s the class of the conference alongside Indiana, even if it isn’t sharing the regular season Big Ten title with the Hoosiers.
Call it therapy – if not refuge – for the No. 10-ranked Buckeyes, who can use the Big Ten Tournament as a way to help them forget that they were as close as Michigan converting on a last-second shot from sharing that trophy.
The No. 2 Hoosiers instead clinched their first outright conference championship since 1993 with a 72-71 win over the Wolverines on March 10, escaping with the victory after U-M junior forward Jordan Morgan’s putback attempt tantalizing rolled around the rim before falling out as time expired.
“Obviously we would have loved for things to have gone a little different,” junior point guard Aaron Craft said. “It was definitely out of our hands, but as much as you’d like to blame Michigan, we have to look at ourselves as well.
“You look back at the games that we played and we lost that we may have been able to steal one here or there that could have been the difference in the season. We couldn’t ask for anything more. Indiana did a good job, they came down the stretch, made plays and got the win. You have to give them credit.”
The Big Ten regular season title is in Indiana, and it will stay there.
But the Buckeyes have moved on from the regular season, though they won’t downplay their impressive finish that consisted of five straight wins – two of which over top-five opponents – to finish the year after enduring what seemed like a backbreaking 71-49 blowout-loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
“These tournaments are for fans,” Matta said. “Our thing is always, ‘Let’s just go play basketball.' I’m hoping what we have done to this point and the games that we’ve played throughout the course of the season have prepared us.”
Though Matta has a way of downplaying the importance of the Big Ten tournament, his program is no stranger to performing well in the final weekend event – which returns to Chicago this season after five years in Indianapolis – before the NCAA Tournament
That’s because the head coach has approached it the same each year – as one final opportunity for Ohio State to improve before embarking on the journey that could yield the Buckeyes their first national championship since 1960.
“The tournament, in general, is going to be four days of tremendous basketball,” said Matta, commenting on the deep competition level in the conference. “The familiarity is higher because you have played these teams, but there’s no magic speech that I’ll give going to Chicago. We’ve kind of, honestly, been very laid back going into this tournament.”
In Matta’s first eight seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have made it to the tournament final six times and have posted a 3-3 record in those games. The only two years OSU hasn’t advanced to the final game of the Big Ten Tournament were in 2005 and 2008.
During that span, Wisconsin is the only other team that has made it to the conference tournament title game multiple times, and the Badgers have posted a 1-1 record in two appearances.
Craft won’t call this year’s stage an opportunity to prove it is on par with Indiana, a team that’s widely regarded as the favorite to capture the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. He, along with the rest of the Buckeyes, simply want to win.
“You go into any tournament trying to win, and that goes back to when you first started playing basketball,” Craft said. “If we’re playing in a game, we want to win. We aren’t thinking about what’s coming down the road.
“We are focused on that game and we feel if we play our best basketball, we have a solid chance to continue to move onto the tournament. That’s our main goal and that's our main focus.”
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