Healthy Buckeyes brace for Big Ten opener

Ohio State’s players know it would be quite an accomplishment to

win a third straight Big Ten title.

They also know just how hard it is to win one.

The second-ranked Buckeyes (12-1) begin conference play on

Wednesday night when they host Northwestern (10-2) in a difficult

test at Value City Arena.

”That would be real cool,” said William Buford, the only

senior on the Buckeyes’ roster and the only player who was a part

of both of those earlier titles.

But sophomore point guard Aaron Craft is well aware of the

rigors of a Big Ten season. There’s a lot of work that has to be

done before someone wins the title.

”Every game’s going to be a grind. And we’re not even halfway

through the season yet – we still have 18 games yet,” he said on

Tuesday. ”Everyone starts new and whatever happened before doesn’t

really matter at all.”

The Buckeyes are encouraged because, for the first time in three

weeks, big man Jared Sullinger appears to be close to being

healthy. He missed two games with back spasms, and most of another

with an injured ankle. After missing a lot of conditioning drills

in practice, and playing sparingly in games, he still isn’t in game

shape.

”It is going to take him time,” coach Thad Matta said before

Tuesday’s workout. ”It’s just the getting back to doing the reps.

Physically, he’s fine. After Thursday night’s game (a 69-40 win

over Miami University) there was some swelling in his foot.”

Matta is more concerned about the wear and tear of keeping him

on the floor, staying in the rhythm of the game without getting

fatigued or in foul trouble.

”Our guys have come in and practiced for an hour and 40 minutes

and guys stay after, they work out,” he said. ”He went extended

time without that. I think it’s more just him getting his wind,

getting his lift, getting back into the flow of things.”

More than worrying about Sullinger, for a change, the Buckeyes

are concerned about a Northwestern team that has the Big Ten’s top

two scorers in John Shurna (19.4 points a game) and Drew Crawford

(18.1).

Northwestern always seems to be at its best against Ohio State.

A year ago, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in both meetings and the

Wildcats didn’t back down either time.

Even without Shurna on Jan. 29 in Evanston, Northwestern lost

58-57. The teams also met March 11 in a quarterfinal of the Big Ten

tournament and the Wildcats took Ohio State to overtime before

falling 67-61.

”It’s a combination of style of play and really good players,”

Matta said of the difficult times his team has had with

Northwestern. ”They lost a couple of guys off of last year’s team,

but by the same token they’re a veteran basketball team. But we’re

a different team and they’re a little different team.”

The Wildcats have lost their past 30 times they’ve played in

Columbus.

The Wildcats like to play a precision, pass-screen-and-cut style

of offense under Bill Carmody.

”It’s a big concentration game,” Craft said. ”That’s one of

the best things that Northwestern makes you do. Every possession

you have to come down and concentrate for 30 to 35 seconds,

otherwise they’re going to score. That’s one of the bigger things

we’re trying to focus on right now.”

Ohio State has won 33 in a row at home and is coming off a

rigorous non-conference schedule which featured games against

Florida, Duke and Kansas.

Matta said he just wants his players to savor the moment.

”The state of college basketball now, everything is blown out

of proportion,” Matta said. ”I’ve always said this, you get to

conference play and now everyone’s going to start talking about

March. I know where our mindset is. You hope that the guys

understand that these 18 battles we’re getting ready to fight are

some of the funnest times of your life.”

Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter:

http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .