COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas talks of the impending conference season as if it’s a series of hand-to-hand battles.
In a way, maybe it is.
“Right now it’s just all about the Big Ten,” said the Buckeyes’ and league’s leading scorer after his team’s 87-44 win over Chicago State on Saturday. “Every night is going to be a fight night and everybody is going to compete.”
It’s time for Ohio State to open play in the rough, rugged — and talented — Big Ten.
The Buckeyes (10-2) host Nebraska (9-4) tonight. There will be little time to take a breath until they close the regular season with a home game on March 10 against Illinois.
It’s also the dawn of a new segment of the season for the Cornhuskers and first-year coach Tim Miles. He inherits a team that went 4-14 in league play last season under former coach Doc Sadler.
Ohio State, co-champs of the Big Ten last year, is a prohibitive favorite.
“We’re the underdog, so we’ve got nothing to lose,” Miles said. “Let’s go figure it out and try to win the game.”
Despite being a three-time defending Big Ten champion, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta takes nothing for granted.
“You’re going into 18 straight games that are going to be brutal, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’ve (played) some pretty good basketball. There’s still a lot of areas we have to clean up.”
The principal areas of concern are the post position and shooting.
Matta has juggled his only senior, Evan Ravenel, 6-foot-11 sophomore Amir Williams, who is limited offensively, and Trey McDonald, with very little experience.
Combined, they’re averaging 12 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. Still, they have been erratic against a non-conference schedule that was weak except for the two losses — against No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Kansas.
Also, keep in mind that’s a considerable drop-off from two-time All-American Jared Sullinger, who averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds by himself last season before leaving early for the NBA.
More troubling is Ohio State’s shooting woes. In their only losses (73-68 at Duke and 74-66 at home against Kansas), the Buckeyes shot 33 and 31 percent, respectively, from the field.
Thomas, who is averaging just under 20 points a game, can only do so much.
Aaron Craft, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, has struggled with his shot. He and his teammates have put in extra time on shooting in practice. They’re confident they’ve worked out the kinks and are ready for the rigors of the Big Ten.
“I really hope so. If not, we’re in for a rude awakening,” Craft said. “Going 10-2 in non-conference, we’ve played some pretty good teams that have set us up to be competitive in the Big Ten. (We have the) understanding that every team is a great team and every team has the potential to win each game. We have to find a way to get better each and every day and understand that every game is vitally important and every game we need to bring it.”
Three times the Buckeyes will play back-to-back road games; only once will they have two home games in a row. In a fortunate turn, they’ll play second-tier teams Purdue and Penn State only on the road, and get toughies Minnesota and Wisconsin just at home.
Everybody’s steeling for what’s ahead. This could be a vintage year for the conference — ranked No. 1 in the RPI — with four teams currently in the Associated Press’ top nine and six among the top 18.
“We just need to put together 40 minutes,” Nebraska big man Brandon Ubel said. “We’ve done that this season. We get up 10 (points) or down 10, but the game’s not over. You just kind of have to have that mentality.”
Matta is looking forward to getting going against the rest of the conference. But he also knows that it’s no time for mediocre play. Bad teams can be revealed quickly.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “But you’re also, like, ‘Strap it on. Here we go.’ ”