No. 3-ranked Buckeyes prepares for decisive month

Published 4:24 am Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Associated Press


COLUMBUS — Not long after No. 3 Ohio State hung a 64-49 shiner on No. 20 Michigan on Sunday, coach Thad Matta was asked how pleased he was to reach the midpoint of the Big Ten season with at least a share of the lead.

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“It beats second, I do know that,” he said.

Trouble is, the Buckeyes (19-3, 7-2) know that most of their work is ahead of them.

All of their remaining nine games will be played against teams which have received points in the Associated Press Top 25 this season. Five of the nine opponents are ranked this week, starting with the Saturday showdown at No. 19 Wisconsin. The Buckeyes will later host the Badgers, and also play No. 9 Michigan State both home and away. In addition, they have a return engagement at No. 23 Michigan on Feb. 18.

Matta is well aware that sitting atop the conference in late January — the Buckeyes actually have a half-game lead on Michigan State (17-4, 6-2) which can pull even with a win at Illinois on Tuesday night — means almost nothing.

“As I told the guys yesterday, we have to get healed up the best we can,” Matta said on Monday. “From there, it’s on.”

Ohio State has played a solid schedule, including wins in November over No. 7 Florida (81-74) and No. 3 Duke (85-63), and December road losses at No. 13 Kansas (78-67) and at No. 13 Indiana (74-71). In January, the Buckeyes had a relatively light schedule of seven games, with a 80-63 rout of Indiana its lone Top-25 opponent.

But now comes a string of the biggest tests of the season. Even the unranked teams — Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern — are dangerous. Each has pulled off its share of big wins so far. All will be gunning to upend Ohio State and improve their own postseason chances.

The Buckeyes enter this stretch on a roll. They’ve won four in a row and six of seven. They are playing well at both ends of the court, ranking second in the Big Ten in both scoring (77.3 ppg) and in points allowed (55.6 ppg).

Michigan coach John Beilein tossed a zone defense at Buckeyes on Sunday, hoping to give them a look that might change the tempo of a game slowly slipping away. It worked, for a while at least, until Ohio State used a second-half run to put the game away.

“You let this team get comfortable … they’ve got too many bullets in that gun,” Beilein said of the Buckeyes.

Lenzelle Smith Jr., who led Ohio State with 17 points and a career-best 12 rebounds in the win over the Wolverines, credited the defense for the improved play the past couple of weeks.

“Whenever we come out and we’re connected on defense, we pretty much get the job done,” he said.

It may not just be a coincidence that star forward Jared Sullinger has recommitted himself after admitting to a lackadaisical attitude during the Buckeyes’ last loss, a 79-74 setback at Illinois on Jan. 10. He said he needed to be more of a leader and had to play hard on each possession instead of resting at times.

He has taken a more active role in huddles, in practice and in games since, expressing himself more and occasionally directing traffic and attitudes on the court.

Asked on Sunday if he put any stock into the Buckeyes’ rise in the Big Ten standings, he offered a firm no.

“Game on Saturday against Wisconsin,” he said tersely. “That’s the biggest focus right now.”

Yes, there is some satisfaction that they’ve righted the ship after a 3-2 start in conference play. But the Buckeyes are aware this is no time to be handing out pats on the back.

“It’s such a long season,” Matta said. “There’s some things we’ve got to continue to get better at. But turning the halfway point at 7-2 is, well, I like it.”


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