It is getting to that point of the college basketball season where teams begin looking at their respective résumés to see if they think they are worthy of a NCAA Tournament bid.
Such teams are likely out of the race for their conference’s regular season title and are just looking to earn enough quality victories to get a shot at a national championship.
Ohio State junior forward Sam Thompson said the Buckeyes are a team on that list.
“We don’t feel that 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,” Thompson said Friday. “We want to get to the tournament, we don’t want to play on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament, and we obviously want to win the Big Ten Tournament.”
If the season were to end today, the No. 22 Buckeyes (19-6, 6-6) — who currently sit by themselves in fifth place of the Big Ten standings — would in fact be stuck playing on the first day of the conference tournament March 13. The top four teams in the league are awarded a bye and an extra day of rest before their conference tournament play starts Friday.
OSU is just one game back of No. 21 Wisconsin in the standings, so getting a first-round bye in the tournament is not out of the question, but because the Buckeyes sit four games behind conference leaders Michigan State and Michigan, Thompson said their mindset has changed with only six regular season games remaining.
“The focus changed a little bit,” Thompson said. “We’re all used to being in a position where we’re really hunkering down and trying to win a Big Ten Championship at this point of the year. Now that we can no longer do that, now that we no longer control that destiny, we have to really play for another cause.”
The Buckeyes lost their third home game of the season Tuesday, a 70-60 decision to Michigan, which OSU led with just more than 12 minutes remaining in the game.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for OSU, one in which the Buckeyes beat two top 20 teams in then-No. 14 Wisconsin and then-No. 17 Iowa by a combined eight points.
Thompson said OSU “probably played about 30 minutes of the best basketball” it has played all year, and coach Thad Matta agreed, but the difference Tuesday was how the Wolverines exploited his team’s mistakes.
“As I told our guys, every mistake that we made, they capitalized on,” Matta said Friday. “And I said, ‘When we’re playing our best basketball, that’s what we do.’”
OSU topped Illinois (14-11, 3-9), 62-55, in Columbus Jan. 23, a win that ended a season-high four-game losing skid. The Fighting Illini have lost nine of their last 10 games, and even though the Buckeyes needed a late push to beat them last month — the game was tied at 46 until junior forward LaQuinton Ross hit a 3-pointer to give OSU the lead for good with 5:48 left — Thompson said the team has improved since that game.
“We definitely feel that we’re a better team (since that game). We’ve made strides offensively and defensively and we’ve sort of gotten ourselves out of this slump that we were in when we played them,” Thompson said. “So we just want to build on what we’ve been doing.”
Although Illinois is currently fighting through a tough stretch of games and sits last in the Big Ten standings, Matta said nothing should be taken for granted and his team must be ready for another conference road game.
“We weren’t playing great on the road in January. Start of February, we got a couple road wins and I love the demeanor that the guys had in warm-ups and timeouts and on the court,” Matta said. “We’re gonna need that tomorrow.”
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Saturday in Champaign, Ill.