With a young squad full of talented freshmen, Ohio State took a little while to figure out how to play together.
It didn’t take that long, though, and the Buckeyes matured quickly through the season to become the nation’s top-ranked team and the favorite heading into the Big Ten tournament this weekend.
Ohio State looks to solidify its chances for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when it plays Michigan in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament on Friday in Chicago.
The Buckeyes (27-3) won their second straight Big Ten title this season, going 15-1 in league play. They’ve tied the school record for victories in a season and have won 14 in a row as they come to Chicago seeking their second conference tournament title. Ohio State won in 2002 and lost to Iowa in last season’s final.
“It’s very important,” Ohio State’s Jamar Butler said of this weekend. “If we can go in there and get these three wins, we’ll be outright regular-season and Big Ten tournament champs. I think that says a lot about our team. And it’ll help us going to the NCAA tournament.”
Ohio State is atop the polls for the first time in 45 years and earned plenty of postseason honors. Thad Matta was named coach of the year for the second straight season while Greg Oden was named freshman of the year. Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr. also were named to the All-Big Ten first team.
Oden and Conley, who won three state championships as Indiana high school teammates, were part of a ballyhooed recruiting class that was expected to help the Buckeyes contend for national titles. Despite playing with an injured right wrist for much of the season, the 7-foot Oden averaged 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while Conley was a calm and steady leader at point guard, averaging 10.1 points and 6.4 assists.
Those two helped Ohio State repeat as conference champion despite returning only one starter from last year’s team. After losing 72-69 at No. 3 Wisconsin on Jan. 9, the Buckeyes didn’t lose again.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we’re in this position but as I told the guys, where we are today won’t score us a point from here on in,” Matta said. “Wins, losses, it has been very good. We have been on a roll here since Jan. 9 or whatever, and realistically we know that we’ve had some games where we haven’t played our best.
“That’s been the driving force: we can play better and we must play better as we go into the Big Ten tournament this week.”
Because they haven’t blown many teams out, the Buckeyes are perceived to be vulnerable, something the Wolverines (21-11) hope to take advantage of as they try to play their way into an NCAA berth.
The Wolverines, who likely need to upset Ohio State to have a shot at making the NCAAs, beat Minnesota 49-40 on Thursday in the opening round despite shooting only 27 percent and committing 15 turnovers.
“We’re not paying attention to any of that stuff,” Michigan guard Dion Harris said. “We know what we have to do as far as taking it game by game, and right now all we’re focused on is playing Ohio State. That’s it.”
The Wolverines came close to pulling off an upset of the Buckeyes on Saturday, but were held scoreless for the final 3:54 en route to a 65-61 defeat.
It was the fifth straight win in the series for Ohio State, which has won both previous meetings in the Big Ten tournament.