The Ohio State basketball team has the nation’s longest active streak without losing consecutive games, one that spans 121 contests and dates back to the middle of the 2010-11 season when Evan Turner was sidelined with a broken back.
That streak may be small potatoes to Thad Matta, but the No. 10 Buckeyes probably have to keep it alive if they want to stay in contention for extending a streak that means everything to the head coach – the program’s three consecutive Big Ten regular season titles.
“This program takes great pride in (those streaks) and that's what Ohio State basketball's about,” junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. “We came in and we get knocked off (at Michigan), but what do we do next? We pick up and keep fighting.”
Coming off of a tear-jerking overtime loss at No. 3 Michigan Tuesday night, Ohio State (17-5, 7-3 Big Ten) hosts No. 1 Indiana in Value City arena at 1 p.m. on Sunday. With the top of the conference standings crowded, the Buckeyes can hardly afford to lose two games in a row.
The Hoosiers are in the same situation. Not only is their spot as the top-ranked team in college basketball likely to change after a stunning 74-72 loss at Illinois on Thursday, Indiana (20-3, 8-2) finds itself needing a win to keep pace with the top teams in the conference it was picked as the overwhelming preseason favorite to win.
As a result, a game that has been long penciled in as a pivotal clash in the conference has become that much more important to both sides. So much for the assertion that regular season college basketball games have lost their luster.
“It’s a must win for us,” sophomore big man Amir Williams said. “But it is a must win for them to challenge for the Big Ten.”
Not only did each team lose their last games, but also both came in heartbreaking fashion. The Buckeyes fell after point guard Aaron Craft’s drive to the hoop was blocked by Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. as the final seconds in overtime ticked off the clock.
Craft was hoping to at least draw a foul after enduring contact – and Hardaway admitted after the game to being surprised that one wasn’t called – but the Buckeyes didn’t earn the whistle and fell to the Wolverines, 76-74.
Indiana’s loss was more surprising given the Hoosiers were leading by nine late in the contest before allowing the Illini to close the game on a 13-2 run, capped by an uncontested game-winning layup by Tyler Griffey as the buzzer sounded because of a blatant defensive miscue.
“They were really down the other night and we knew that we had some squandered opportunities, but we had a good long meeting and it was from a spirit of let's get better,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said.
“Like I tell them, we're going to be good, it's not about bouncing back - it's about making sure that you're getting better. If you spend a lot of time bouncing back and worrying about your mentality, then all of a sudden that cuts into your preparation. That cuts into what you need to do to win the game.”
The Hoosiers will likely stick with what’s made them one of the toughest teams in the country to beat, and that starts by getting big man Cody Zeller the basketball.
Though Williams had perhaps his most impressive game in conference play against Michigan, he knows containing Zeller and his propensity for running the floor will be a challenge. The sophomore hopes his previous matchups against Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Kansas’ Jeff Withey this season will come in handy for containing Zeller.
“That guy runs the floor,” Williams said of Zeller, who averages 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Hoosiers. “He’s probably one of the best in college basketball at running the floor in transition. That’s one thing I’ve got to key on.”
Matta has become accustomed to coaching in big games, particularly with the top-ranked team involved. Of course, the Buckeyes have spent plenty of time in the recent years atop the polls, but he’s also played six games against No. 1 teams.
More important to Matta than improving his mark to over .500 in games again No. 1s – he’s 3-3 in his career heading into Sunday’s game – Matta knows how much knocking off the Hoosiers would mean for the trajectory of his basketball team.
“It's the next opponent because (them being No. 1) doesn't get you anything in terms of you still have to play the games, you don't get a head start or a point advantage,'' he said. ''We've been very fortunate to be in that position (ranked No. 1) a lot in our time here and I've always thought our guys have handled it pretty well.”
Follow Ari Wasserman on Twitter and find us on Facebook.