Players grabbed the big cardboard signs that read “2013 Big Ten Tournament champions” and carried them off the floor and into the locker room as confetti fell from the United Center rafters.
A 50-43 win over Wisconsin Sunday afternoon had just given Ohio State its third Big Ten tournament championship in the last four years and its fourth during Thad Matta’s nine-year tenure, so this wasn’t a particularly new feeling for much of the team’s roster.
But the Buckeyes wanted to hold onto this one.
“I feel like being an older guy, you don’t get these moments very often,” said Lenzelle Smith Jr., who sat in the corner of the locker room after the win with his arms draped around the tournament’s trophy. “I’m trying to cherish every moment I get like these.”
Thad Matta has made winning the routine to Ohio State. The four Big Ten tournament four titles under his direction are more than any other team in the conference has managed since the tournament’s inception in 1998.
Smith has won two conference tournament titles in his three years with the Buckeyes, and all but one player on the rest of the roster is coming off a season a year ago that culminated in a Final Four berth.
“We had to fight back for this one, though,” sophomore Sam Thompson said. “It’s been a heck of a month, but we have really turned the corner for the better. We had our struggles, but this team is ready to make some noise come tournament time. We are going to enjoy this trophy for a little bit first.”
The Buckeyes won’t have much time to rest.
Ohio State was awarded the No. 2 seed in the West region and will start its NCAA Tournament against Iona on Friday in Dayton. Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in that region, New Mexico is No. 3, Kansas State is No. 4, Wisconsin is No. 5 and Arizona is No. 6.
If the higher seed wins each game in the West region, the Buckeyes’ route to the Final Four in Atlanta would be achieved with wins over Iona and No. 7 Notre Dame in Dayton next weekend, followed by potential matchups with New Mexico and Gonzaga in Los Angeles’ Staples Center the following weekend.
A tough road to college basketball’s biggest stage, no doubt, but a journey, all of a sudden, experts feel the Buckeyes are well equipped enough to complete. Ohio State is now a trendy pick to make its second consecutive Final Four run.
“That’s college basketball,” senior big man Evan Ravenel said. “A month ago nobody thought we’d be in this position but here we are. We never stopped fighting and believing, and now I think we’re a good enough team to win it all if we keep playing Ohio State basketball.”
Exactly 30 days ago Ohio State was projected as a No. 5 seed – maybe even lower – coming off of a 71-49 loss in Madison against the very same Wisconsin team it topped in a slow-paced, physical battle in Chicago on Sunday.
That loss dropped the Buckeyes to fifth place in the Big Ten and three games out of first place with only five regular season games remaining.
Indiana was flying high, Michigan State was coming on and Wisconsin was rising a fashionable pick to surprise people in March. Ohio State’s reign at the top seemed over with one embarrassing blowout loss.
“Not to us in this locker room,” OSU assistant coach Chris Jent told BSB. “We never stopped believing in what we are capable of doing. Think about it, 30 days is a third of the Big Ten season. That’s a lot of basketball.
“It’s great that our projected future has changed dramatically because of our recent success, but we have played a lot of basketball in the last 30 days and it just shows you what you can do when you come together and really play great as a team.”
In the last month, Ohio State has soared in a conference where it’s been hard to fly. It has won eight straight games since its embarrassing loss at Wisconsin, a time during which other teams have struggled.
Indiana was awarded a No. 1 seed in the Eastern region, but it is 3-3 in its last six games and was dropped by the Badgers in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament on Saturday. Wisconsin is also 3-3 in its last six, Michigan State is 3-4 in its last seven and Michigan is 6-6 in its last 12.
That’s just the culture in this conference, and Matta knew that a month ago when the Badgers seemingly exposed his team on national television. It was concerning, no question, but Matta said he never took his eyes off the big picture.
“I knew there would be mountains to climb,” Matta said. “There always is.”
Maybe this is Everest.
Ohio State still has climbing to do to make it to the peak.
But before looking ahead, Matta and his Buckeyes are going to breath the rarefied air that comes with winning – something Ohio State inhaled as much as any other program in the country since the head coach took over the program in 2004.
What’s ahead remains a mystery, but Matta plans to relish the latest addition to his already stacked trophy case before taking his next gasp tomorrow.
“We have been at Ohio State for nine years and we set out to build a top-level college basketball program,” Matta said. “And I think we’ve done that.”
Follow Ari Wasserman on Twitter and find us on Facebook.