When the college basketball season winds down, teams are typically looking to get on a hot streak with the NCAA Tournament looming large on the horizon.
Regardless of the trials and tribulations a team went through during the season, all that matters is getting to the postseason and peaking at the right time to begin chasing a title.
Ohio State could certainly see itself in NCAA discussions this season, and with just a week left before March, it appears the Buckeyes — winners of five of six — might be getting things figured out.
“I think it’s important because I think that you’re establishing a collective thought of winning,” OSU coach Thad Matta said Friday on seeking late season success. “Hitting that stride is obviously very, very important.”
The No. 24 Buckeyes (21-6, 8-6, 5th in the Big Ten) currently sit just half a game behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings after dispatching Northwestern at home Wednesday, 76-60. After losing five of six games during a streak in January, including a 71-70 overtime setback at home against Penn State Jan. 29 that senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. called the lowest point of the season for the team — OSU appears to be getting hot at the right time and played some of its best basketball of the year against the Fighting Illini Feb. 15.
Senior guard Aaron Craft, however, disagreed with Smith Jr. Friday, saying January was just a time the Buckeyes needed to find out who they really were.
“I don’t want to say, I mean that’s not rock bottom. Penn State’s a great team, and they had just got their first win so they’re riding high and they made plays down the stretch and we didn’t. On that day, they were the better basketball team than us,” Craft said. “I think the whole month of January was a huge learning time for us. Penn State just happened to be the last one of that month. It was tough on all of us.”
As OSU looks toward Minnesota (17-10, 6-8) for its second-to-last home game Saturday, the Gophers are potentially on the NCAA Tournament bubble after falling to Illinois at home Wednesday. Minnesota beat OSU, 63-53, Jan. 16, and are likely to be looking for another quality victory to add to its tournament résumé. Matta said that if that is the case, his team will be ready for it.
“The great thing we have going, and I don’t know how many we’ve played —13 or 14 Big Ten games — every single one of them has had that type of sense of urgency. So not expecting anything drastically different from them, or for us,” Matta said.
The loss to the Gophers was the third amidst a ghastly four-game skid last month that spanned nearly two weeks, but Craft said things have changed since then.
“They were tougher than us in that game,” Craft said. “I know we turned the ball over way too much. That’s kind of their calling card. They rely on steals and transition baskets. I also think we’re definitely a different basketball team. Just watching film, from offensive execution to defensive rotation, I think we’re definitely a better team.”
Playing a large part in the Buckeyes’ recent string of wins has been junior forward LaQuinton Ross, who has scored an average of 15.8 points in OSU’s last five games.
OSU faced the possibility of having to take on the Gophers without their leading scorer, though, after Ross was ejected from Wednesday’s game against Northwestern for shoving two players during an on-court scuffle in the second half. Ross was not suspended, but Wildcat redshirt-senior forward Nikola Cerina was for what lead official Ray Perone called taking “a swing with a closed fist or a closed hand” at OSU junior center Amir Williams. Craft said the team was relieved to hear the news that Ross wasn’t suspended.
“When you see one of your brothers kind of getting into it, you want to come to his aid and help him out. And did Q help him out in the best way? Absolutely not. We’re very thankful that he doesn’t have to sit out this next game,” Craft said. “Obviously he’s been a big part of us playing better basketball offensively and defensively. It’s definitely a learning point … You always have to try to keep your head. There’s a lot at stake and you can’t risk it all for five seconds of what he did.”
Matta said he spent time earlier Friday thinking of a “politically correct” response to a question about the incident, but ultimately said he liked how Ross stood up for a teammate — just not how he executed it.
“I like guys standing up for teammates. Obviously as you said, the execution may not have been appropriate at the time. Having that control of ‘hey things happen,’” Matta said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m proud, I don’t like that at all. I don’t like the situation … So you can’t have that. And that is the politically correct thing — we won’t stand for that.”
Still having Ross in the lineup allows for OSU to remain at full strength as it heads into its stretch run, but Craft said getting a series of victories before the postseason isn’t necessarily No. 1 on the docket of tasks at hand.
“Obviously, we want to win every game, so if that happens to come in a streak right now, that’s fantastic and I think over the years since I’ve been here, we’ve done a pretty good job doing that,” Craft said. “But our motivation isn’t to string a few together, our motivation is to win every game. One game at a time. And just try to win that one and move onto the next one and figure out what we have to do.”
Tipoff against Minnesota is set for 6 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center Saturday.