Nebraska-Ohio St. Preview
Ohio State coach Thad Matta was busy this week as he prepared his team for the Big Ten tournament.
Matta, who seldom lets his emotions get very far away, first had something he wanted to get off his chest before the 10th-ranked Buckeyes face 10th-seeded Nebraska in the quarterfinals Friday night at the United Center in Chicago.
Two of his players - conference scoring leader Deshaun Thomas and versatile point guard Aaron Craft - were listed on the Big Ten's first team in media voting this week. But Matta was rankled that the league's coaches voted to give the defensive player of the year honor to Indiana's Victor Oladipo rather than Craft.
Matta said his Buckeyes (23-7) would not have earned the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament if not for the pesky, turnover-producing Craft's sleight of hand on defense.
Matta pointed to how many times Craft, a junior who holds Ohio State's career record for steals and already ranks seventh in Big Ten history, forced five-second calls during the season and how often he changed games by igniting Ohio State's transition game with a steal.
"I don't even care about the Big Ten (award); (Craft) should be the national defender of the year," Matta said. "Maybe I'm biased, but you have to gameplan for him. As an opposing team, you have to be aware of where he is when you're running your offense. I've been in this league for nine years and I've never seen anybody have an impact on a basketball team like he does on the defensive end."
Craft and the Buckeyes were solid defensively in winning both matchups this season with the Cornhuskers (15-17), who advanced with a surprising 57-55 win over Purdue on Thursday night. Ohio State won 70-44 at home to open conference play Jan. 2 and posted a 63-56 road win Feb. 2.
Craft had three steals and a season high-tying eight assists in January as the Buckeyes held Nebraska to a season-low 30.4 percent shooting, and the Cornhuskers shot 37.1 percent in last month's meeting.
Nebraska shot a combined 25.5 percent (12 for 47) from 3-point range in the two matchups, and has averaged 46.3 points on 32.2 percent shooting - 20.7 on 3s - in losing all four meetings since joining the Big Ten for the 2011-12 season.
The Cornhuskers went 3 for 11 from beyond the arc Thursday and shot 44.7 percent overall as they won for the second time in three games after dropping six of eight.
"Coach (Tim Miles) told us after this game, he said he'll give us until dinner to celebrate this one. And we all kind of laughed, but it's true," senior forward Brandon Ubel said.
"We've got to get in the film room, got to really focus in on what (the Buckeyes) do well. Try to take away those things. Try and contain Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft whose been playing really well lately too, and hopefully we can come out and execute that gameplan as well as we did tonight."
The Buckeyes, with Craft disrupting opposing offenses, have won five in a row - including victories at then-No. 2 Indiana and at home against then-No. 4 Michigan State.
Ohio State has played in the Big Ten title game four years in a row and is brimming with confidence heading into this year's tournament.
"We're playing awesome basketball right now," said Thomas, averaging 19.7 points. "We're trusting in the system and we're playing our roles. We know once we come and play our best defense, we're the best defensive team in the country in my eyes. We just have to keep it going."
Ohio State has won the Big Ten tournament three times in the last seven years and lost in the final three other times. The only time the Buckeyes have missed the championship game in that span was 2007-08.
"This is going to be a lot of fun," Craft said. "Having all of us there at once and at a new arena that none of us have really been to. It's going to be a good experience. Hopefully we can make a weekend of it. We'll see."