Craft, Ohio State peaking at right time

CHICAGO — In a way, the Big Ten tournament is all about familiarity.

Come Sunday afternoon, however, Wisconsin won’t recognize this Ohio State team, at least not at first. The game has changed, the Buckeyes have changed — and most certainly for the better.

Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship game will mark four weeks to the day since Ohio State showed up in Madison anything but ready to play and limped out after a humbling 71-49 loss. It was a game of runs, all by Wisconsin, and a clinic in precision, discipline and capitalizing on an opponent’s mistakes.

Again, it was Wisconsin that did all the capitalizing. The Buckeyes hit rock bottom.

It’s fitting, then, that Ohio State’s chance at redemption — and another Big Ten tournament title for coach Thad Matta — comes against Wisconsin. The two teams set up their third encounter Saturday, the Buckeyes edging Michigan State 61-58 and the Badgers stunning Indiana 68-56.

As for the Buckeyes, they haven’t lost since that Feb. 17 game. The way they’re playing right now, it’s not hard to imagine this seven-game winning streak continuing to grow.

They made it seven by topping the Spartans in the semifinals, riding Aaron Craft to a little second-half breathing room and then getting clutch plays from Deshaun Thomas down the stretch to preserve the three-point victory and advance to the championship game. That title game Sunday doesn’t mean a whole lot to either team in the bigger picture, but it will certainly test Ohio State’s streak. And its mettle. The Buckeyes are indisputably the Big Ten’s hottest team, but Wisconsin has been just as good over its last 50 minutes of basketball this weekend.

“We’re ready for the challenge,” Thomas said.

What’s become a sneaky-good and totally unpredictable rivalry between the Buckeyes and Badgers —they’ve split the last 10 meetings — gets the national stage Sunday in the final game of college basketball’s ‘First Season.’ And four weeks after Ohio State seemed headed for its shortest season in recent memory, here’s Wisconsin again.

The No. 4 seed here despite struggling down the stretch in the regular season, Wisconsin turned a slow start into a convincing victory over Michigan on Friday. Then the Badgers outdid the regular-season champion and likely NCAA tournament No. 1 seed Hoosiers in about every area on Saturday afternoon to advance to the tournament title game.

Ohio State is seemingly always in that game — this makes an unprecedented five years in a row — and comes in on a roll. With the help of Thomas, Craft and a bunch of other players who are playing their best right now, Ohio State has been a different team since that last meeting with Wisconsin, and it’s been a team that mixes quickness and unselfishness with enough leadership from Craft and Thomas that it suddenly looks like a real contender from here on out, not just a participant.

“The hard part of going through 18, now 20 games in the Big Ten, is it beats you up,” Matta said. “I mean, this is as brutal as I’ve ever gone through. But I’m very proud of how these guys have finished and understood, and they’ve gotten so much better in practice and paying attention.”

That’s where Craft and Thomas come in. Veterans of both the 2011 team that was the NCAA tournament No. 1 overall seed and last year’s team that went to the Final Four as the No. 2 seed, they know big games, big stages and big expectations. Going back to a Feb. 24 game in which Craft took over against Michigan State in the second half, it’s been a team that’s gone from flawed and vulnerable to one that’s dictating tempo and getting contributions from lots of places.

Craft is leading the way; he had 20 points, nine assists and four steals on Saturday. Thomas had 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and it was his offensive rebound in the final minute that deflated Michigan State and his basket that essentially sealed it.

“It was all (Craft),” Thomas said “Just space out and let him go to work.”

Said Craft: “I felt pretty good today. My first shot was an air ball, so that wasn’t ideal. But I settled in.”

Indeed. He had 18 of his 20 in the second half.

Matta’s shift to a primary lineup that includes Craft and fellow point guard Shannon Scott has been a key part of Ohio State’s turnaround. The Buckeyes are pressuring opposing guards, creating scoring opportunities with their defense and creating smarter, better shots in half-court settings. The Buckeyes like to speed the game up with their pressure and athleticism; the Badgers like to slow it down, though they’ve been shooting very well here this weekend.

Sunday’s game should be a dandy, a meeting of the Big Ten’s two best defensive teams and two who came in to this tournament trending in opposite directions. Both are now playing well at the right time, and while Wisconsin gradually pulled away from Indiana on Saturday, Ohio State built a lead and then held on late.

It relied on its veterans and its formula. That formula didn’t really exist the last time Ohio State and Wisconsin met, and the Buckeyes are grateful to have beaten Michigan State and earned another chance.

“Great win for us,” said Matta, who’s now 7-0 in Big Ten tournament semifinals.

And another great chance on Sunday.