"Northwestern will be home before we get there," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "That's the reality of what's going on now."
After closing out the regular season with a loss in Columbus, the Wildcats had the misfortune of being the first team to suffer a defeat in the Big Ten Tournament when they dropped a 66-53 decision to Minnesota. Now, Northwestern heads back to Evanston, Ill., and awaits what figures to be a bid to play in the NIT.
The fifth-seeded Buckeyes, on the other hand, will start conference play today at 2:30 p.m. when they face the fourth-seeded Badgers in a game aired live on ESPN. The stakes are simple: win or go home.
Last season, OSU headed into the conference tournament with more than a title on the line. Having pulled out two wins at home against ranked teams in the span of five days to close out the regular season, the Buckeyes suddenly found themselves again fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives.
It was not mean to be, however, as OSU went on to lose to Michigan State by a 67-60 final, earning them a berth in the NIT instead.
This year, the Buckeyes look assured to have a spot clinched in the Big Dance, but that does not mean they feel they have any less to play for in Indianapolis.
"I think our guys are hungry to do well in the Big Ten Tournament just because we didn't do well last year," OSU sophomore guard Jon Diebler said. "We feel like we can make a run. I think everyone is very energetic. No one looks tired when we come into practice. Everyone's ready to go."
The best-case scenario for the Buckeyes looks like a murder's row of opponents. First up is a game against an experienced Wisconsin team that won the conference tournament last season. Should OSU knock the Badgers off, it will likely be looking at a showdown with No. 1 seed Michigan State for the right to then play for the tournament championship.
The thought of three high-level games in as many days has sophomore swingman Evan Turner excited to get started.
"I'm not really worried about being tired," he said. "I just want to win, to tell you the truth. You can rest on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It's just a war. Whoever gives up the most for sacrifices is going to win. I'm just focused on this game. Hopefully we get this victory, this next game. Once the ball is tipped, go to war."
In OSU's tournament loss to the Spartans last season, only Turner saw significant action among the players still on the Buckeye roster. Against MSU, the freshman had six points, four assists and one steal in 32 minutes of action. Diebler and classmate Dallas Lauderdale saw four and two minutes of action, respectively, whole then-sophomore guard P.J. Hill played for nine minutes.
The Buckeyes learned a quick lesson about one-and-done tournaments and put that knowledge to good use as they ran off a five-game winning streak that culminated in the NIT championship.
Being successful in a conference tournament sometimes requires more than skill, Matta said.
"A lot has to go right," he said. "I think a lot of it has to do with getting on a roll. Making shots, staying healthy, staying out of foul trouble. Can you keep your rotations the same, get your guys rest here and there? You need a little luck and you've got to be playing your best basketball sustained all the way through."
This year, the fact that an NCAA bid seems assured has led to a greater ability to focus on the task at hand, Diebler said.
"Last year we needed the win to try and get into the (NCAA) tournament…. I think that was in the back of our minds," he said. "I think we feel more confident. Last year it was so unknown what was going to happen because some of the games we lost and the games we won. I think we feel a little more confident this year."
While it was suggested to the Buckeyes that an earlier loss in the conference tournament might save their legs for the NCAA Tournament, Diebler shot down that line of thought.
"This year we're not even really trying to think about the tournament right now," he said. "We just are focused on ‘we need to beat Wisconsin to get to the next round of the Big Ten Tournament.' That's our goal. We didn't win the regular season, so we want to win the Big Ten Tournament."