For each of the past five years, and seven of eight, Ohio State has played in the championship game of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, watched the NCAA tournament selection show from a room in the arena, and then boarded a chartered bus or jet for the trip home.
“You find out who you’re playing and we’re like, ‘All right, guys, go get on the bus, we’re going back to Columbus — and woo-hoo, we’re going to the NCAA tournament,’ ” coach Thad Matta said, “and guys are like sound asleep on the bus.”
The NCAA tournament is, at some point, cause for celebration. But the Big Ten tournament is a grind. With one game after another for potentially four consecutive days, it has been like nothing else the Buckeyes do all season.
“It kind of reminds us of AAU times,” guard Aaron Craft said.
But if the Buckeyes somehow make the conference championship game again this weekend, they will travel a road only a handful of teams have in the history of the tournament.
For the first time since 2005, the Buckeyes did not earn a first-round bye, because of their fifth-place finish during the Big Ten season. They face Purdue, which finished last, this afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The past five years the Buckeyes needed to win two games to reach the title game. This year, without the bye, they have to win three. Only seven teams have in the 16 years of the tournament, including Ohio State in 2003, when senior guard Brent Darby willed his teammates to the title game in Chicago before they lost to Illinois.
“We’re looking for the same thing that we look for every year. We’re looking to win the Big Ten tournament championship,” junior Sam Thompson said yesterday before the Buckeyes bused to Indianapolis. “Our goals haven’t changed because of our seed or because of the losses in the regular season. We’ve all packed to stay through Sunday, and we all expect to play four games in four days.”
That will be more difficult than ever in a volatile league in which only one team (Michigan) finished with fewer than six losses in conference play and one (Purdue) with fewer than six victories this season. None of the conference’s 12 teams rank lower than 139th in the Rating Percentage Index, a balance that none of college basketball’s other top seven leagues can boast.
“I think this year’s tournament could be one of the classics of all time,” Matta said. “I saw where Warren Buffett is giving a billion dollars (to anyone who fills out a perfect NCAA bracket). I’d like to see somebody pick the route of this one, as well.”
Matta said he has had other coaches call him to ask how he has navigated the Buckeyes to Sunday almost every year. “I wish I had a secret,” he said.
The team’s routine is the same as during the regular season, he said, except for practice, which was “very, very hard but not very long” yesterday, Matta said, “with the thought of, ‘Hey, you could play four games in four days.’ I’ve had to do that before.”
That was at Xavier in 2004 before Matta left four months later for Ohio State. The Musketeers won four games in four days in the Atlantic 10 tournament and then three more games in the NCAA tournament before losing to Duke in a regional final.
Thompson said players were tired on the final day of the Big Ten tournament last season but pushed through it. That’s why they train so hard during the offseason, he said.
“If we’re fortunate enough to make it that far, I think the adrenaline and excitement of making it that far would overcome being tired,” Craft said. “You’re at a point where you’ve just got to suck it up and find a way to get the job done.”