Illinois-Ohio St. Preview
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)
The Buckeyes won't take the bait.
Yes, they know a home win over Illinois on Sunday afternoon coupled with an Indiana loss later in the day at Michigan would leave them in a multi-team tie for the Big Ten championship.
But they refuse to let anyone think they're getting ahead of themselves by saying they'll be rooting for the archrival Wolverines. Instead, the party line is that No. 14 Ohio State is concentrating on taking care of its own business first.
"I'm only focused on the game at 12:30 against Illinois on Sunday," said Evan Ravenel, Ohio State's only senior, who will be playing his final home game at Value City Arena. "I'm not really focused on what everybody else does."
Coach Thad Matta declined to even address a possible fourth consecutive Big Ten title and sixth in eight years.
"I'll be honest with you, I just want to play well on Sunday. That is where our focus is completely," he said. "We would be foolish to think past 12:30 on Sunday. That's all we've ever done. We have one more game to play to end the regular season and that is the only thing that is on my mind and hopefully the only thing on our players' minds."
Not so long ago, winning a conference title was seemingly out of reach. The Buckeyes appeared to be in a free fall less than three weeks ago, with three losses in four games capped by a 71-49 defeat at Wisconsin.
When they woke up the next day, they were three games out of first place with five games left.
Since then, the Buckeyes (22-7, 12-5) have allowed an average of 54.0 points while winning four in a row, including a win over then-No. 4 Michigan State and a victory at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday. Aaron Craft has stepped up offensively during the run, shooting a combined 14 of 22 against the Spartans and Hoosiers.
While Ohio State has gotten stronger, the teams ahead in the standings have stumbled to give the Buckeyes a chance. Ravenel, a Boston College transfer who has developed into a vital component of the team, said it's gratifying to know how far his team has come since last month's loss to the Badgers.
"The Big Ten is the best league in the country. So it's a good feeling," he said.
Matta, though, is making it clear that he's not thinking past Illinois, which beat the Buckeyes 74-55 at home earlier this season.
"The one thing I've told them is that you can't win anything if we don't play well on Sunday," Matta said. "You're playing (an Illinois) team that literally destroyed you on Jan. 5. And quite honestly, there hasn't been a whole lot more conversation than that."
The Fighting Illini (21-10, 8-9) held Ohio State to 33.3 percent shooting, the Buckeyes' worst performance in conference play this season. Deshaun Thomas scored 24 points but needed 21 shots to do it, and no other Ohio State player had more than 11.
Brandon Paul had 19 points for Illinois and Nnanna Egwu chipped in with a season-high 16 on 7-of-10 shooting. It was just the fourth win in the last 15 meetings for the Illini, who have lost three straight trips to Columbus by at least 16 points apiece.
Illinois has a pair of road wins over ranked opponents this season, including one against now-No. 1 Gonzaga, but it shot 28.6 percent in a 63-55 defeat at Iowa on Tuesday after winning six of its previous seven overall.
This will be the first game in Columbus for Illinois coach John Groce since he spent four seasons as an assistant under Matta from 2004-08. He was also on Matta's staff at Butler and Xavier before that.