Buckeyes Look Toward Chicago, Big Ten Tourney

We preview this weekend's Big Ten men's basketball tournament in Chicago with a look at OSU's possible opponents, Thad Matta's comments on yesterday's win and his own record of postseason success and much more. Click this free link for a complete look at the Big Ten's eighth annual men's basketball tournament.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Big Ten men's basketball teams will put an exclamation point on the regular season with a postseason tournament.

This year's event, set for Thursday through Sunday, will be staged in Chicago‘s United Center. This marks the sixth time the United Center has hosted the event. The other two previous tournaments (2002 and 2004) were hosted at Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse.

After defeating Big Ten champion Illinois 65-64 Sunday, Ohio State (19-11, 8-8) will enter the tournament as the sixth seed. The Buckeyes will face 11th-seeded Penn State (7-22, 1-15) at 5 p.m. Eastern Thursday (ESPN2).

The winner will advance to meet third-seeded Wisconsin (20-7, 11-5) in a quarterfinal match-up at 9:10 p.m. Eastern Friday (ESPN-Plus).

The victory over Illinois was huge on several levels. It allowed OSU to move out of a tie for sixth with Iowa, giving the Buckeyes the sixth seed and a date with Penn State instead of the seventh seed and a match-up with Purdue. Purdue coach Gene Keady is retiring at season's end, meaning his team could be a dangerous opponent in this tournament.

Plus, this was OSU's first .500 finish in Big Ten play since winning the conference title at 11-5 in 2001-02. The Buckeyes were 7-9 in 2002-03 and 6-10 last year.

Speaking on today's Big Ten teleconference, OSU coach Thad Matta reflected on the magnitude of Sunday's dramatic upset of the previously unbeaten Fighting Illini.

"Yesterday's game was a great game for us," Matta said. "With the fact that we can't go to postseason play, I don't think any of us would have said it but we were thinking it, this was a huge game from the standpoint of we're not going to have that luxury of playing a nationally televised game like a tournament game.

"A win like yesterday probably solidified that we would be another Big Ten team getting in the NCAA Tournament. From that perspective, it was a great win for our seniors. Their last game in the Schottenstein Center is one they will never forget. Hopefully, a win like that will help us to continue to lay down the foundation for our program here at Ohio State."

OSU is serving a self-imposed one-year postseason ban in connection with NCAA rules violations that occurred on coach Jim O'Brien's watch. Matta was asked if he and his team will approach the Big Ten tournament as their NCAA Tournament.

"No, I don't think we will," Matta said. "Honestly, I think we'll hold true to what we've down now for 30 days. We'll go into practice today and try to get better. Our first opponent is Penn State. I think when you get to Chicago, the tournament setting lends itself to maybe a little bit of that.

"But, honestly, with our guys we haven't done that all year. We will not make a bigger deal out of something. Kind of like the Illinois game yesterday, it will go unspoken.

"I know it's the weirdest feeling I've ever had, leaving the building on Wednesday and knowing that regardless of what happens, we're going to come home and put everything away."

In one week OSU reversed its fortunes dramatically. On Feb. 27, the Buckeyes looked lackluster in a 64-56 home loss to Wisconsin. Matta said he had to reenergize his team after that defeat.

"I didn't want that game to justify in their minds that it is winding down," Matta said. "I felt like the stretch we had, ending with Wisconsin, at Iowa and Illinois at home, that we were going to have to play some great basketball in order to survive. These guys have never quit. They've been amazing in that regard. My motivation was to get them back to playing with great pride and finishing this season as strongly as we possibly could."

OSU gave Iowa a real run this past Wednesday before falling on Jeff Horner's late jumper, 74-72, at Iowa City.

"That was a game where we never put it all together," Matta said. "Our biggest challenge all year has been to get us playing more consistently on both ends of the floor. Defensively, we were not getting stops. But it is a positive at the end to have a chance to win the game. Horner just made an incredible shot on us."

After the win on Sunday, the players talked like they now believe they can make a run in Chicago.

"This feels great," center and captain Terence Dials said. "This gives us a lot of momentum going into the tournament. We know we can play with anybody in the country, obviously. This gives us more confidence."

Scouting The Opponents

Ohio State swept its season series with Penn State, winning 68-62 in Columbus and 66-56 at State College.

In the first game, PSU's Aaron Johnson did the best he could to take OSU leading scorer Terence Dials out of the game. Dials finished with just five points. But the guards picked up the slack as Tony Stockman (17 points, though 1 of 9 on three-pointers), Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (15), Je'Kel Foster (14) and J.J. Sullinger (10) all reached double figures.

Geary Claxton had 18 points and Mike Walker scored 12 in that game for Penn State.

Ohio State pulled away late to win the game at PSU. Sylvester led OSU with 15 points, while Foster had 13 and Dials and Ivan Harris each tallied 12. Claxton (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Travis Parker (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Johnson (10 points) led PSU. OSU shot 57 percent from the floor in the second half and the bench, led by Sylvester, chipped in 28 points.

Penn State's only Big Ten win was a 65-62 home decision against Northwestern. Claxton leads PSU at 12.4 points per game, followed by Johnson at 12.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest. The Lions lost starting guard Marlon Smith (11.7 ppg) to a small, transient, partial blockage of an artery in his brain related to a small blood clot after the Big Ten opener.

If OSU advances, the Buckeyes would then tackle Wisconsin, which swept the season series with the Buckeyes.

Wisconsin won 72-66 on Jan. 11 in Madison, then took the win over OSU last Sunday in Columbus.

At Madison, UW played without leading scorer Alando Tucker. But it didn't matter as 6-8 forward Mike Wilkinson carried the load. He had a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds. Guards Clayton Harris (14 points) and Sharif Chambliss (11) also delivered.

OSU, led by 15 points from Dials and 14 from Sylvester, twice got the lead down to four in the final three minutes, but could get no closer.

Wisconsin's win in Columbus was much more lopsided than the final eight-point margin indicates. Tucker had 19 points and nine rebounds and Wilkinson had 14 points and eight boards. UW led 37-27 at halftime and by as many as 15 in the second half before settling for the eight-point win. Dials was 8 of 10 from the floor and finished with 20 points. No other Buckeye reached double figures.

Tucker, an athletic 6-5 forward and bad mismatch for most teams, leads UW at 15.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Wilkinson is next at 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds. Guard Kammron Taylor averages 8.5 points per game, while Chambliss, a transfer from Penn State, adds 7.7 points per game.

The Badgers have won three in a row and four of their last five going into the Big Ten tournament.

In a similar circumstance two years ago, OSU, seeded eighth, advanced to the quarters and knocked off the top-seeded Badgers 58-50.

Recipe For Success

Matta brings a resume of success in postseason tournaments to Ohio State.

For starters, with his 1-1 record this year at Ohio State, his teams are now 24-6 all-time in the month of March.

That record includes an 11-1 all-time mark in conference tournaments, including three tournament titles in four previous years. His teams are also 6-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, including his Xavier team's 3-1 run to the Atlanta Region finals last season.

In Matta's only season at Butler, the Bulldogs won the conference regular season title and rolled through the MCC Tournament. Then, his first Xavier team went 3-0 in the 2002 Atlantic 10 tournament and last year XU went 4-0, including a stunning win over then-No. 1-ranked and unbeaten St. Joseph's in the quarterfinals. They capped the conference tourney with a 58-49 win over Dayton on UD's home floor.

The coach talked about how and why his teams have been successful in the postseason.

"Honestly, you don't make more out of it than it is," Matta said. "We're going to Chicago and we're playing Penn State at 5 o'clock on Thursday. That's the only thing we can control -- that game. At the conclusion of that game, if we're fortunate enough to advance, we prepare for our next opponent. We don't have a lot of time.

"You hope at this stage that your system and everything you've put in is good enough. As you switch from opponent to opponent, you can take facets of your offense and defense and say, `Let's apply that to this game.'

"You have to keep the guys focused on one game at a time. You don't want to look ahead and say, `Let's get this one and we get a crack at so-and-so.' You want to focus in on what you can control. That's something we have always tried to do."

Also Notable

* Illinois is the official Big Ten champion. But the winner of the tournament gets the conference's official berth to the NCAA Tournament. With Ohio State on a self-imposed postseason ban, if the Buckeyes win the tournament the conference would not have an automatic berth.

* Despite the loss to Ohio State, Illinois would remain the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten tournament. But there are several compelling storylines. Illinois, MSU and Wisconsin -- all top-20 in RPI, according to collegerpi.com -- would be considered locks to make the NCAA Tournament.

But three more Big Ten teams are likely on the bubble going into the conference tournament.

Fourth-seeded Indiana (15-12, 69th in RPI) and fifth-seeded Minnesota (20-9, 47th in RPI) will meet in the quarterfinals on Friday. A win would probably put Minnesota on solid ground, while IU may need two wins to feel good about its chances. They were both 10-6 in conference play. No eligible Big Ten team with 10 conference wins has been denied an NCAA bid since the field went to 64 teams in 1985.

Only two eligible Big Ten teams with winning conference records have been denied NCAA bids since 1985. They were Minnesota in 2001-02 and Iowa last year, each going 9-7.

Iowa (19-10, 54th in RPI) probably needs two wins in Chicago to have a chance. The Hawkeyes were 12-1 outside the conference with notable wins over Louisville, Texas and Texas Tech. But Pierre Pierce's dismissal from the team hurt Iowa, which was just 7-9 in Big Ten play.

The NCAA has only taken one Big Ten team with a sub-.500 record in Big Ten play and that was Indiana, which was 8-10 in 1989-90.

* Teams that play on the first day of the Big Ten tournament (seeds 6-11) have a little reason for optimism. In the seven years of the tournament, nine of the 28 teams that advanced to the semifinals played all four days of the event. Four of the 14 teams that have reached the finals were also first-day teams, including sixth-seeded Iowa which won the 2001 tournament title.

* Ohio State has enjoyed some success in the Big Ten tournament over the years. OSU won the tournament in 2002, then went 3-1 and finished as the runner-up to Illinois in 2003.

* OSU's all-time record in the tournament is 7-6. Most of the wins have come in the last three years, when OSU has gone 6-2. That includes 3-0 in 2002, when second-seeded OSU rolled through Michigan, Illinois and Iowa to win the tournament crown.

Illinois has the best Big Ten tournament record at 13-6. Michigan State is next at 8-5, followed by Iowa at 8-6 and OSU and Wisconsin at 7-6. Northwestern has the worst mark at 3-7.

* Michigan State has won two Big Ten tournaments (1999 and 2000). Michigan won the inaugural tournament in 1998, although that title was vacated as part of the school's various NCAA infractions. Iowa (2001), OSU (2002), Illinois (2003) and Wisconsin (2004) all have one tournament title each.

* The best seed to have in the Big Ten tournament is, by far, the two seed. That seed has produced four of the seven champions and a pretty 14-3 record. The top seed has produced one champion (MSU in 1999) but just a 6-6 record overall, meaning other than that one title tournament top seeds are 3-6.

The sixth seed hasn't been bad (11-6) with one champion (Iowa in 2001). Teams seeded fourth are 9-6 with one champion (Michigan in 1998).

The worst seed to have, by far, is the five seed. Those teams are a combined 2-7 with just Michigan State and Michigan, seeded fifth the last two years, respectively, surviving the four-five quarterfinal game as the five seed.

* OSU and Illinois have had more all-tournament picks than any other school with six. For OSU, that group includes Michael Redd in 1999, Brian Brown in 2002, Brent Darby in 2002-03, Boban Savovic in 2002 and Sean Connolly in 2003.

* The United Center sits about one mile west of downtown Chicago. It is the home of the NBA‘s Chicago Bulls and NHL‘s Chicago Blackhawks.

This year's tournament has a chance to break attendance records, which were set in 2001 at the United Center. Sessions involving top-seeded Illinois -- the first quarterfinal session on Friday, the semifinals and finals -- are already sold out.

The record is 109,769 for the 2001 tournament. The single-session record is 23,509 for the 2001 semifinals.

Big Ten Tournament Schedule

At Chicago‘s United Center

(All times Eastern time)

Thursday's Opening Round

Northwestern (8th seed; 14-15, 6-10) vs. Michigan (9th seed; 13-17, 4-12), noon (ESPN)

Iowa (7th seed; 19-10, 7-9) vs. Purdue (10th seed; 7-20, 3-13), 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Ohio State (6th seed; 19-11, 8-8) vs. Penn State (11th seed; 7-22, 1-15), 5 p.m. (ESPN2)

Friday's Quarterfinals

Illinois (1st seed; 29-1, 15-1) vs. Northwestern-Michigan winner, noon (ESPN)

Indiana (4th seed; 15-12, 10-6) vs. Minnesota (5th seed; 20-9, 10-6), 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Michigan State (2nd seed; 22-5, 13-3) vs. Iowa-Purdue winner, 6:40 p.m. (ESPN-Plus)

Wisconsin (3rd seed; 20-7, 11-5) vs. Ohio State-Penn State winner, 9:10 p.m. (ESPN-Plus)

Saturday's Semifinals

1:40 p.m. and 4:05 p.m. (CBS)

Sunday's Championship Game

3:30 p.m. (CBS)

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