OSU Still Alive In Big Ten Race

Two weeks ago, the Ohio State basketball team suffered an embarrassing 71-49 blowout at Wisconsin, a loss that sent the Buckeyes to fifth place in the Big Ten race and little hope of earning a share of their fourth consecutive Big Ten crown. Three victories later - and some upsets elsewhere - and OSU is rejuvenated by its new life.

With a share of the 2013 Big Ten championship already in hand, Indiana welcomes Ohio State into Assembly Hall on March 5, a win away from its first outright conference title since 1993.

But the Buckeyes, defenders of three consecutive conference championships, can still have a say in the Big Ten race they've become accustomed to winning.

"They're not the only ones playing for something," OSU junior guard Aaron Craft said. "We're playing for something, too."

Craft admitted that two weeks ago he would have never thought such a statement could come out of his mouth, particularly after the Buckeyes were blown out at Wisconsin by a 71-49 score.

The loss was not only embarrassing for the team because of its lopsided nature but also dropped Ohio State into fifth place in the Big Ten standings with little chance at earny sniff of a fourth consecutive title.

But in the Big Ten, a conference where upsets have become routine, the Buckeyes are just a win away from putting No. 2 Indiana – a team that once looked to be the runaway favorite for the outright title – in position to have to share the crown.

With only two games remaining in the regular season, No. 14 Ohio State has an 11-5 conference record and is two games behind the 13-3 Hoosiers. But if the Buckeyes can go to Bloomington and earn the road victory, they pull within one game of Indiana in the conference race – and then things could get very interesting.

Indiana finishes its season on the road at No. 7 Michigan on March 10 while the Buckeyes close against Illinois in Value City Arena that same day. OSU-Illinois tips at 12:30 p.m. Eastern with the Hoosiers and Wolverines scheduled to get things under way in Ann Arbor at 4.

"Indiana knows if they win this game that they can be cutting down some nets and getting a title," junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. "They are going to be ready. They have the home-court advantage, and they're going to be fired up. We are trying to come in there and take that. We have to compete with them, match their intensity and play hard."

Though Ohio State has to win its final two games and get a little help from archrival Michigan to grab a piece of the title, the Buckeyes have found a sense of refreshment now that opportunities once seemingly lost have come back into the picture.

That's because of a crazy Big Ten schedule that has produced some of the more shocking upsets in college basketball this season. During a six-day stretch between Feb. 26 and March 3, Minnesota toppled Indiana, Penn State shocked Michigan and Purdue outlasted Wisconsin.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had gotten down and took a step back, and we hadn't really been in that position since I have been in college," Craft said. "We have always controlled our own destiny and things like that. As a team, we have done a great job of picking ourselves up and understood that there's still a lot to play for and that getting better was a must.

"We thought there was a chance that we wouldn't be able to attain everything we wanted to at the beginning of the year but knew we had to get better. This is the time where we have to be playing our best basketball. It is March, and in college basketball that gets you excited and ready to go. Fortunately, things have worked out for us to have a very impactful game (against Indiana)."

The Buckeyes have been here before, trailing Michigan State by two games for the Big Ten lead with only two remaining last season. After drawing within a game before the season-finale, a last-second jumper by guard William Buford at Michigan State achieved a three-way tie for the championship and prevented the Spartans from winning the outright title on their home floor.

"We feel like we can do that again at IU," Thomas said.

The challenge could be much different for the Buckeyes this year, particularly because the Hoosiers are widely considered to be the one of the most balanced teams in the country. When the teams met for the first time this season Feb. 10, Indiana rolled to an 81-68 rout at Value City Arena and had three different starters score 20 or more points.

But the Buckeyes are out to prove they are a different team this time around, one that is prepared to make a March Madness run.

"We have had our ups and we have had our downs this year, but it is fun to have been on the ride," Craft said. "That's the crazy thing about basketball. We are playing for something we probably didn't think we'd be playing for a month ago. It is a lot of fun."

OSU head coach Thad Matta never gave up hope for the Big Ten title, even when the team's situation was grim.

Having guided the Buckeyes to five of the last seven conference crowns, the coach said he knew that putting focus on the standings wasn't necessary.

"We have won five Big Ten championships," Matta said, "and I think every one of them has come down to the last week. I can't say that I am surprised that it is happening again. It should be a fun finish."

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