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Back-to-back games present new challenge for Sullinger, Buckeye youth

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia editor

With a Big Ten title secure and a likely No. 1 seed locked up for the NCAA Tournament, the Ohio State men’s basketball team would be forgiven for taking it easy in the Big Ten Tournament.

Just don’t expect it to happen this weekend.

“It’s 0-0. Everyone’s record is 0-0. Everyone’s got a clean slate,” fifth-year senior forward David Lighty said at a press conference Wednesday. “The regular season doesn’t mean anything now, so it’s kind of like starting the season back over. We’ve got to come ready to play, and what is it, 120 minutes until hopefully mission No. 2 is complete?”

Mission No. 2 is the Big Ten Tournament. The tournament is a grueling competition that schedules games on back-to-back days, a gauntlet that tests the mettle of its combatants a week before postseason play begins.

The seniors are familiar with the format. Last season, the team won three games in as many days, including a marathon double-overtime effort against Illinois and a down-to-the-wire performance against Michigan.

“It’s a lot of basketball in a short period of time if you continue to win,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “I think our guys have a pretty good understanding of what we have to do, a little bit challenging from the standpoint of you don’t know who you’re playing. We won’t know until probably right before we get there.”

For freshmen such as Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, the format is a bit foreign. The majority of regular-season games are at least a day apart, and in most cases they’re even further.

However, the young guys have played in games in which they’ve been denied the opportunity for a lengthy break in between contests. Amateur Athletic Union games and tournaments often are completed in a short amount of time.

“Playing three games in three days, hopefully you just have to come in here with the mindset of wanting to win,” Sullinger said. “Over the summer we took a lot of physical abuse with the sandpit and leg lifting, running miles, I mean we’re just going to continue to play.”

Lighty agreed that having AAU experience is beneficial when there are short periods between games.

“I think it goes back to the importance of the individual players that we have, and not wanting to lose at all. … We can go back to AAU days; we’ve done this many times,” Lighty said. “So just for us to come out, and if we lose we can’t be satisfied with that.”

All season, analysts have debated whether Matta’s seven-man rotation would hinder the team’s chances of winning it all. The typical response was that the players would get worn out, and a clear lack of rest might lead to bad play late in the season.

One former Buckeye said he doesn’t think it’s an issue.

“I don’t really see it being a factor,” Clark Kellogg, lead college basketball analyst for CBS, told The Lantern. “The timeouts are extensive. You can massage your players’ wear and tear with minimizing practice time.

“You’ve got experienced guys who not only know how to take care of their mind, but how to take care of their bodies and prepare for championship runs. So I think it’s a very moot, insignificant point.”

Although lack of depth might not be a factor in Kellogg’s eyes, he did mention a few areas that could be troublesome for the Buckeyes.

“More detrimental to Ohio State is foul trouble than lack of depth,” Kellogg said. “And also a matchup with mobile, active big men, specifically a pair or more. Matchups and foul trouble, more than playing a seven-man rotation, would be more problematic.”

OSU, as a team, seems to have two goals in mind: Approach this weekend as if it’s business as usual, and win at all costs.

“Honestly it’s just another trophy to put in coach Matta’s office,” Sullinger said. “We’re here to win, and this is just another step towards where we want to be, so we need to keep playing.”

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