For the first time in five years, 22nd-ranked Ohio State hits the middle of February with no shot at a Big Ten regular-season title.
But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot left on the table.
"Our tangible cause would be, one, right now to make the NCAA tournament," junior Sam Thompson said. "We don’t feel we’ve done enough to really put ourselves in a position where we can say if the season ended today we’re hands down in the tournament. And, we don’t want to play on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament and we want to win (it).
"It’s about sending a message every time we step out on the floor."
Heading into their game Saturday at Illinois (14-11, 3-9), the Buckeyes (19-6, 6-6) are a distant four games back of co-leaders Michigan State and Michigan with just six games left. So coach Thad Matta is not going to capture his sixth regular-season crown in his 10 years on the job.
Instead, the Buckeyes must now retrain their focus.
They’re coming off a 70-60 home loss to No. 15 Michigan on Tuesday night. In that game, they led by 10 points before going without a field goal for the final 6:23 of the first half. Still ahead by four at the half despite that drought, they built an eight-point lead in the opening minutes after the break and were up by 43-37 with 12 minutes remaining.
"When I went back and watched the tape, I literally started at 43-37, and said, `What happened here?’" Matta said Friday. "It was a case of when you’re playing a really good basketball team (and) every mistake we made, they capitalized. I said to our team, `When we’re playing our best basketball, that’s what we do.’"
A lot of coaches are wondering what happened here.
There’s no predicting what’s going on anywhere in the Big Ten in a wacky, weird season. Indiana (4-7 in league play) has beaten Michigan and toppled Wisconsin when it was 16-0 and ranked No. 3 – but has lost at home to Northwestern (5-7). Northwestern has won at Wisconsin but lost at home to the Badgers. Penn State (4-8) was 0-6 in the conference but has won four of six including games at Indiana and Ohio State.
Coached by former Matta top aide John Groce, the Illini’s only Big Ten wins since defeating Indiana to begin conference play have come against Penn State – which, of course, has beaten the Buckeyes. So, go figure.
The Buckeyes rose to No. 3 in the rankings by going 15-0, then lost five of six – the only win was 62-55 over Illinois in Columbus on Jan. 23. They came back to win three in a row before falling at home to Michigan on Tuesday – their first loss in Columbus to the Wolverines in 11 years.
Afterward, Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft pointed out there’s no time to mull the defeat.
"As much as this may hurt, we have to move forward," he said. "We have to find a way to continue to get better because nothing’s guaranteed – and there’s still a lot to play for."
One constant in the Buckeyes’ losses is that they haven’t shot well. They have made 40.6 percent of their shots in their defeats, 47 percent in the wins.
They have also been outrebounded for the season and, coming down the stretch of games, have turned the ball over. Craft had two turnovers and Buckeyes missed two shots while Michigan went on the 12-0 run that turned the game around.
Thompson said the team has discussed what’s ahead.
"The focus changes a little bit," he said. "We’re all used to being in a position where we’re hunkering down and trying to win a Big Ten championship at this point in the year. Now that we no longer can do that, now that we no longer control our destiny, we have to really play for another cause. We know what we’re playing for. We know what we want to do every time we step out on the floor. Now it’s just executing it."
Execution at the offensive end remains a major problem for Illinois, which has lost nine of 10 while averaging 58.9 points on 36.7 percent shooting. The Illini fell 67-58 at Nebraska on Wednesday as top scorer Rayvonte Rice was their only player in double figures with 23 points.
Rice, averaging 16.8 points, went scoreless for the first time in his three-year career in last month’s loss to Ohio State as he went 0 for 8 from the field.
Illinois has lost eight of 10 in the series but has beaten the Buckeyes at home in each of the past two seasons.