OSU Travels North, Knows Its Crunch Time

The No. 6 Ohio State basketball team knew there was no room for error after its loss to Michigan State last weekend if it wanted to win the Big Ten title. Traveling to No. 17 Michigan on Saturday night, the Buckeyes on their shots at winning a fifth conference title in eight years under Thad Matta is at stake.

It probably feels normal for the Ohio State basketball team by now – after all, it is the fourth consecutive weekend where the Buckeyes will play a high-profile game with at least a share of the Big Ten lead on the line.

When the sixth-ranked Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3) travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday to take on No. 17 Michigan (19-7, 9-4) in the Crisler Arena, Ohio State is likely fighting for more than just conference positioning this time.

With just five regular season games remaining – three of which Ohio State will play away from Value City Arena – and the top of the Big Ten up for grabs for multiple teams, the Buckeyes' prospects of winning the conference are likely at stake.

"We don't really bring it up, and I know our guys know, so it would be almost like stating the obvious to them," said Matta, who's looking for his fifth conference title in eight years at Ohio State. "They understand (what's at stake). It's how do you get better and how do we prepare for the next opponent? That's really the approach we've taken."

The stretch of tough weekends began on Jan. 29 when the Wolverines came to Columbus and fell to 64-49. The following weekend, the Buckeyes went to Wisconsin and earned Matta his first victory in the Kohl Center with a close 58-52 win.

Last weekend is when the Buckeyes suffered its first loss in a weekend showdown, falling to Michigan State 58-48 on Feb. 11. Had Ohio State won the game, it would have created a two-game lead in the Big Ten with six games remaining.

Now, the Buckeyes sit at the top of the Big Ten in a tie with the Spartans. Michigan, still with a shot to win the conference, is only a game behind Ohio State and Michigan State and could make themselves a contender with a win over the Buckeyes Saturday night.

Wisconsin (19-7, 8-5) still has an outside shot to contend for the conference title, but after a 69-55 loss to Michigan State on Thursday night, the Badgers saw their chances hindered immensely.

"This is why you come and play at a big-time program like Ohio State," sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. "It's awesome to just be a part of and have the experience to say we're playing for what we're playing for."

Michigan comes into the game having won two in a row after falling to Michigan State in East Lansing. The Wolverines, however, beat the Spartans on their home floor 60-59 on Jan. 17 and have yet to lose any of its 14 games on its home floor this season, including all seven in Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes bounced back from its loss to the Spartans last weekend with 78-68 win at Minnesota on Tuesday, but two of their three losses in conference action have come on the road. Ohio State, however, has beaten Michigan 15 of the last 17 times the two teams have faced. The Buckeyes' two losses have come in their last four games in Ann Arbor.

Michigan coach John Beilein is most certainly aware of the statistics. What he's more concerned with are the numbers on the Big Ten standings chart.

"Ohio State is a really good basketball team, but we've worked hard and we feel good about the direction we've gone this week to get ready," Beilein said. "It certainly is advantageous to get a win."

The Wolverines shot only 35.8 percent from the floor in their last meeting with Ohio State and Beilein credited the Buckeyes' defense for being "suffocating," but things are expected to go different in the Crisler Arena.

The Buckeyes' leader, sophomore Jared Sullinger, has a simple plan for helping Ohio State respond to the loss to the Spartans and it has nothing to do with altering anything tactically.

"We just need to get that element of toughness back and keep playing hard," Sullinger said. "Five guys together. When you do that, you're pretty hard to beat."

The Buckeyes can't afford to do anything else.

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