The Buckeyes are the Big Ten's regular season champions and it will be difficult not to look ahead to the NCAA Tournament. But head coach Thad Matta believes that the conference tournament can help prepare his team for the "Big Dance."
"Well, I think number one, it puts everybody on a neutral court, obviously," Matta said. "And number two, these tournaments are more fan base driven than they are, perhaps, coach base driven. I'm sure we're going to be in a situation before our time is done here where we're going to have to go over there and win a couple games to secure something. But I think for the most part, it's a great opportunity. You bring all the teams together and it's a four day slugfest, especially in the Big Ten. Somebody will be still standing at 5 o'clock on Sunday."
With No. 7 Ohio State (23-4) being one of the surprise teams of college basketball this season, Matta was asked if he feels his team still has something to prove at the Big Ten Tournament.
"No," he said. "And the reason I say that is I think the biggest challenge in college basketball is winning your conference. Everybody plays eight home games, eight road games. When you incorporate the travel and the crowds and the times of the game and all that stuff, all my stock goes into the regular season conference championship. I have been in some situations where we needed to win the (conference) tournament, and fortunately we did. But I think what these guys have done, going undefeated in the non-conference schedule, going 12-4 in the Big Ten schedule and winning an outright championship, that's good for me."
Ohio State is 2-0 this season against both Penn State and Northwestern. The Buckeyes had a much easier time with the Nittany Lions (14-13) this season, winning 104-69 in Columbus on Jan. 5, and 75-64 in State College on Jan. 21.
Ohio State defeated the Wildcats (14-14) 61-52 in Columbus on Feb. 18, and 56-53 in Evanston on March 1.
"The irony is both teams play a lot of zone," Matta said. "Penn State and Northwestern have different offenses. There are things we have to shore up. We're working more on ourselves than anything. Both of those teams are playing really well right now. Northwestern has their unique offense and they change defenses. Penn State plays more of a power type game, but they are shooting the ball better. They will play zone, but they are more athletic than Northwestern. That should be a heck of a game to watch."
Matta knows production from OSU's bench will be critical if the Buckeyes want to stay fresh enough to win three games in three days.
"Very important," Matta said. "Matt (Terwilliger), Ivan (Harris), Ron (Lewis), Sylvester Mayes … whoever we've got to play, I think it's vitally important. But the one thing you always remember as a coach is everybody else is playing too. And therefore, I think it's a wash (in regards to becoming fatigued). Day two everyone is going to be a little tired, and day three a little more tired. But I think the competitive nature of everybody takes over and they try and get the job done."
Ohio State will likely solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if it wins the Big Ten Tournament. But Matta is not ready to make that declaration.
"I don't know. Honestly I don't know the answer to that," he said. "Somebody was asking me that earlier. I think it would put us in good shape to be, but I don't know if that is the case."
The Players' View
One might think that the players are looking past the Big Ten Tournament. But senior guard Je'Kel Foster says that is not the case.
"It is very important to us," he said. "We are putting the (regular season) championship behind us. We want to do bigger things. Of course, we were happy to win the championship."
Foster doesn't put any stock in the idea that the Buckeyes are now a marked team and everyone will be gunning for them.
"I think the target on our back is just as big as anybody else's," Foster said. "There are a lot of great teams in the Big Ten. We just want to come out and play Ohio State basketball."
Foster looked ahead to the NCAA Tournament and what the team's mindset might be entering the field of 65.
"We're going into the tournament as an underdog in my eyes," he said. "We have a lot of things we want to prove. We think we can play with anybody in the country."
Foster led the Big Ten this season with 66 steals – fourth most in OSU history. He is also averaging 13.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists, and is shooting a team-best 44.7 percent from 3-point range.
But just two weeks ago, Foster was the nation's leading 3-point shooter at over 50 percent. He has made just eight of his last 39 shots from long range, but he's not worried about it.
"I'm just getting extra shots in every day," he said. "I have to get my stroke back to where it was. I watched film and found myself rushing my shot instead of taking some time."
Foster was asked how many shots he gets up each day.
"As many as I can," he said.
* Senior center Terence Dials, the Big Ten Player of the Year, knows playing well in the Big Ten Tournament could help the Buckeyes' seed for the NCAA Tournament.
"We definitely want to be as high a seed as possible going into the NCAA Tournament," Dials said. "If we do some good things, we should be a one seed or a two seed in the NCAA."
Dials knows that the other Big Ten teams would like nothing better than to beat the reigning conference champions.
"When you're on top, people will gun for you," he said. "We have to prepare for that. We know that's what will happen when we get into the tournament. Coach has been preparing us all season for this."
Added senior forward J.J. Sullinger: "Everybody wants a piece of Ohio State. We know everyone will be out to get us. We're anxious to see how we come out."
Sullinger is of the opinion that OSU will probably lock up a No. 1 seed if it wins the Big Ten Tournament.
"Obviously, we want to win as many games as we can," he said. "Hopefully, we can win three. No question, this was the best conference in the country. If you win the Big Ten regular season and then win the Big Ten Tournament, they have to give you a one seed, I would think. But I don't have my major in bracketology, so I don't know."
(Sullinger is an African-American/African Studies major at OSU. No word if he minored in bracketology.)
Sullinger was asked if he has a preference between playing Penn State or Northwestern.
"It's pick your poison," he said. "Those are two very good teams. We didn't play particularly well against either of them the last time we played them. Honestly, I would like to see Penn State win. Jamelle Cornley is from Columbus and he is one of my good friends. I would go with Penn State for Jamelle's sake. But Northwestern is also a very good team."
Matta Disputes Groce Rumors
There were reports out of Pittsburgh that OSU top assistant John Groce had been offered the head coaching position at Duquesne University. Matta refuted those rumors.
"I told John this morning, ‘Welcome to dealing with the media,'" he said. "Because I can honestly say this: John has not spoken to any school at all about a head coaching position. I think that in time, if it happens, we'll sit down and see what's best for him and his family, but he has had no conversations with any school regarding that.
"From what I was told this morning, someone had already locked him into a job or something. I think when the time is right, he'll get something. He's a tremendous assistant. He's a tremendous asset to the program. I've always tried to get guys on the staff that are going to someday be head coaches and when the time is right and when the situation is right most importantly, he'll have my blessing with that."
Matta was asked if he would be surprised if any of his assistants would "jump ship" with arguably the nation's No.1 recruiting class coming to OSU in the fall. Wouldn't all the assistants want a chance to coach Greg Oden and crew for at least one year?
"Well, like I said, it would take a real good situation," Matta said.
Buckeyes Discuss NCAA Situation
Like everyone else, Matta is still in the dark regarding what will happen with the NCAA's investigation of OSU's program.
"I haven't heard anything," Matta said.
At this late of a stage, it's hard to imagine the NCAA would decide to ban OSU from the 2006 tournament.
"I wouldn't think," Matta said. "They're going to have 66 in the tournament if that's the case."
Matta has always taken the mindset that the Buckeyes will be part of the NCAA Tournament this year.
"Yeah. I haven't allowed myself to think otherwise," he said. "I always thought I'll have to cross that bridge when it came. And I'd probably jump off that bridge if that was the case."
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith doesn't know when the NCAA will hand down its decision.
"We met (Tuesday) on scheduling, but no news," Matta said. "I think he doesn't know exactly when, or what, or anything along those lines."
Senior forward Matt Sylvester is not overly concerned about possible NCAA sanctions. He knows it's a long shot at best that OSU will not be able to play in the tournament.
"A couple of months ago, I was not thinking about it that much," Sylvester said. "But now the closer we get, it is a little bit nerve-wracking. By all accounts we have heard, we should be OK. I keep saying, ‘In Matta we trust.'"