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Time running out’ for Ohio State men’s basketball

OSU coach Thad Matta during a basketball game against Michigan State Feb. 11. OSU lost, 58-48.

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Ohio State men’s basketball has entered the final stretch in its race to March, and it is well aware that time is running out.

OSU (22-5, 10-4 Big Ten), which slipped to No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll, welcomes unranked Illinois (16-11, 5-9 Big Ten) to its court Tuesday. The contest marks the second-to-last home game for the Buckeyes this season.

The match with the Fighting Illini comes on the heels of a stretch in which OSU coach Thad Matta’s squad has lost two of its last three games to Michigan State and Michigan on Feb. 11 and 18, respectively.

In order to cross the regular season finish line in good standing, or just beat an Illini team that suffered a 23-point Saturday loss to Nebraska, the second-worst team in the Big Ten, Matta said the team has to be ready to play Tuesday night.

After all, Illinois is one of the five teams that has beaten OSU during the 2011-12 campaign — the Illini defeated the Buckeyes, 79-74, on Jan. 10 at Champaign, Ill.

“The focus is on us,” Matta said. “We have to play better and we have to do things that we need to do.”

Matta highlighted areas of need for the Buckeyes Monday that some might consider rudimentary.

“We’ve got to defend at a high level. We weren’t good in transition defense (against Michigan),” Matta said. “Offensively, when we’re supposed to screen, we’ve got to screen. When we’re supposed to have the ball in a certain spot, we have to have it in a certain spot. And, if at all possible, try and get back and get some easy baskets.”

The Buckeyes returned to practice to hone their craft Sunday less than 24 hours after their 56-51 loss at Michigan.

The team was on the floor for an hour-and-a-half, and dedicated 15 minutes to shooting.

On a night when OSU shot 39 percent from the field and against the Wolverines, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas contributed 25 points, a scoring output Thomas said he hoped would lift the entire team.

“It helped my confidence a lot,” Thomas said. “But my thing is just trying to get everybody together as a team to get to the next level.”

Now, with just four games remaining in the regular season, OSU sophomore guard Aaron Craft said time is running out for the Buckeyes.

“There has to be a sense of urgency on our team now,” Craft said. “I think we’re starting to understand that. There’s four games left and each one of them going to be a big one. We’ve got to focus on Illinois tomorrow.”

Matta and his players agree that there are positives.

Despite the poor shooting performance against Michigan, as well as a 26 percent showing from the floor against the Spartans, Craft said the team remains confident in its offense.

“With the guys that we can put out there, most of the time we get pretty good shots,” Craft said.

OSU has just 80 regulation minutes of basketball remaining in the Schottenstein Center portion of its schedule, and 160 total regulation minutes in the regular season.

Matta, who said he remains confident in his team as a whole, despite the two losses last week, might already have an eye to the postseason.

“We’ve got a lot of basketball still to play,” he said. “We’re in a good position.”

Tuesday’s game against the Illini at the Schottenstein Center is set for 7:00 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.

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