Mathematically, the No. 22 Ohio State men’s basketball team (19-6, 6-6) isn’t eliminated from the Big Ten title hunt just yet. But for all intents and purposes, the Buckeyes would be best served finding another goal.
And all indications are that they’ve done just that.
Sitting four games back of both Michigan and Michigan State with six contests left on the schedule, a fourth regular season Big Ten championship in five years currently stands as the longest of long shots for Ohio State. The Buckeyes, well aware of where they stand in fifth place in the race for the conference crown, admitted on Friday to redirecting their purpose for the remaining third of Big Ten play.
“The focus changed a little bit. We talked about it yesterday. We’re all used to being in a position where we’re hunkering down and trying to win a Big Ten championship at this point in the year,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “Now that we no longer can do that, now that we no longer control our destiny, we really have to play for another cause. We’ve definitely talked about it. We know what we’re playing for.”
And what exactly are the Buckeyes playing for now? Primarily the postseason, where there are still several questions to be asked about Ohio State, who possesses one of the more interesting resumes in the college basketball landscape.
With 19 wins already to their credit, the Buckeyes were once ranked as highly as second in the nation in the USA Today coaches poll, but found themselves unranked after a January stretch that saw them pick up five losses in a six-game stretch. As far as quality wins go, Ohio State lays claim to road victories over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Iowa -- but those could be negated by embarrassing losses to Nebraska and Penn State.
Asked about his team’s re-shifted focus, Thompson pointed to being one of the top four teams in the Big Ten at the regular season’s end so that the Buckeyes can enjoy a bye in the conference tournament, as well as the NCAA Tournament, where in his eyes, Ohio State could be on the outside looking in.
“Our tangible cause would be to make the NCAA Tournament. We don’t feel like we’ve done enough to really to put ourselves in a position where can say if the season ended today, we’re hands-down in the tournament,” Thompson said. “We want to get to the tournament. We don’t want to play on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament and we obviously want to win the Big Ten Tournament. It’s about sending a message every time that we step out onto the floor”
The Buckeyes’ path in attempting to accomplish those goals continues -- or begins -- on Saturday, when OSU will head to Champaign, Ill. for an 8 p.m. ET tipoff with Illinois (Big Ten Network). The Buckeyes beat the Fighting Illini in Columbus on Jan. 23 by a 62-55 margin and Illinois has endured struggles of its own as of late, having lost nine of its last 10 games.
Nevertheless, Illinois will likely remain a tough out for OSU, as you’d have to go back to 2011 to find the last time that the Buckeyes won in the State Farm Center. Ohio State head coach and Hoopeston, Ill. native Thad Matta admitted that there’s something to his team’s struggles in his home state, as regardless of their record, the Illini usually possess one of the more potent collections of talent in the Big Ten.
“When you’re not winning at certain places, sometimes they have really really good teams,” Matta said. “Hopefully they use it as a little bit of a challenge, because I know that’s always on the scouting report -- what the records are when they go to places.”
A native of Chicago, a win in Champaign would be particularly nice for Thompson, who is yet to earn a win in his college career at the State Farm Center.
“That’s actually a very un-special arena for me,” Thompson said. “I don’t have very fond memories about going to play Illinois. Right now my only focus is getting a win. We’re in a position where it’s a must-win game for us.”
Given the importance of the Buckeyes’ upcoming stretch, that doesn’t appear to be a mentality that will be changing in Columbus any time soon.