Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
It doesn’t get as much recognition as the two Final Four appearances in six seasons, or the three straight Big Ten championships, but there is another accomplishment possibly just as conducive to Ohio State’s ascension into an elite college basketball program.
The Buckeyes don’t lose back-to-back games. Not recently, anyway.
OSU hasn’t lost two straight games since the 2009-10 season, when the Buckeyes followed up a loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 31, 2009, with a defeat at Michigan on Jan. 3, 2010. With Kansas losing two games in a row this week, OSU’s current streak of 121 games without back-to-back losses is the nation’s longest.
“This program takes great pride in that, and that’s what Ohio State basketball is all about,” junior forward Deshaun Thomas said Friday, referencing the streak.
Coming off a 76-74 loss in overtime to Michigan in Ann Arbor Tuesday night, OSU’s streak is in jeopardy. Facing No. 1 Indiana Sunday, making sure the program doesn’t lose consecutive contests for the first time since 2010 will be no easy task for the Buckeyes.
Indiana lost its last game, too. The Hoosiers fell to Illinois at the buzzer Thursday night, 74-72. With the Big Ten as competitive as it’s been in recent memory (three teams are tied for first place with two others just a game back), and both programs coming off loses, the stakes will be quite high Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a must win for us and it’s a must win for them,” sophomore center Amir Williams said.
The No. 10-ranked Buckeyes weren’t able to scratch out a win at No. 3 Michigan, but coach Thad Matta left Ann Arbor feeling good about his team’s effort. Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross had one of the best Big Ten games of his career, scoring 16 points while adding five rebounds-all on the offensive end. Sophomore center Amir Williams had nine points and four blocks in career-high 36 minutes.
For a team that has struggled to get scoring production aside from the Big Ten’s scoring leader in Thomas, Matta said he hopes Tuesday night will turn out to be a trend with his team and not an anomaly.
“They played better Tuesday night,” Matta said Friday. “Can they do it again, and again, and again?”
The key to notching a win against the country’s top team might be defense, however.
Indiana boasts a National Player of the Year candidate in sophomore center Cody Zeller. Williams, who said he “played harder than (he) ever has before,” at Michigan, has the tough task of matching up against the Hoosier known in Bloomington, Ind., as “Big Handsome.”
“(Zeller)’s probably one of the best in college basketball at running the floor…This is a transition game and I’ve got to continue to work,” Williams said.
Don’t expect the Buckeyes to let Zeller go one-on-one with the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder all game, though.
“He plays hard. He’s smart. Very, very athletic,” Matta said, speaking about Zeller. “I don’t think you can guard a guy like that with just one guy.”
Stopping Indiana in transition is a major part of OSU’s strategy as well. With Zeller and junior guard Victor Oladipo, the Hoosiers have some of the conference’s most threatening players in the open floor.
The main focus of the Buckeyes, though, centers on themselves and not the opponent. OSU is still learning how to finish games, Matta said. The Buckeyes had an eight-point lead in the second half against Michigan before the Wolverines forced an overtime session in which the Buckeyes scored only two points. OSU also fell into second half spells against Nebraska and in the home matchup against Michigan.
“When we come in at halftime and we’ve got a lead or something, we have to keep putting our foot on the pedal. To finish a game you have to do those extra things,” Thomas said.
There are big moments in every close basketball game, and OSU has been part of a lot of tight contests recently. The Indiana game should be no different. For the Buckeyes to have success down the stretch against the Hoosiers, they need to be smarter, Matta said.
“You need to look at yourself and say, ‘What do we need at this juncture?'” he said.
OSU and Indiana are set to tipoff at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Anticipation for Sunday’s contest is high among OSU students. Since Wednesday night, tents have been pitched outside the Schottenstein Center with Buckeye faithful waiting in line to get the best seats possible.
The effort from the students hasn’t gone unnoticed by Matta and his team.
“I think it’s awesome,” Matta said.
Added Thomas: “They true Buckeye fans. They ride or die (with us).”