COLUMBUS — The Buckeyes won’t take the bait.
Yes, they know a home win over Illinois this afternoon coupled with an Indiana loss later that day at Michigan would leave them in a multi-team tie for the Big Ten championship.
But they refuse to let anyone think they’re getting ahead of themselves by saying they’ll be rooting for their archrival Wolverines. Instead, the party line is that No. 14 Ohio State is concentrating on taking care of its own business first.
“I’m only focused on the game at 12:30 against Illinois (today),” said Evan Ravenel, Ohio State’s only senior, who will be playing his final home game at Value City Arena. “I’m not really focused on what everybody else does.”
Coach Thad Matta declined to even address a possible fourth consecutive Big Ten title.
“I’ll be honest with you, I just want to play well (today). That is where our focus is completely,” he said. “We would be foolish to think past 12:30 (today). That’s all we’ve ever done. We have one more game to play to end the regular season and that is the only thing that is on my mind and hopefully the only thing on our players’ minds.”
Not so long ago, winning a conference title was seemingly out of reach. The Buckeyes appeared to be in a free fall less than three weeks ago, with three losses in four games capped by a 71-49 defeat at Wisconsin.
When they woke up the next day, they were three games out of first with five games left.
Since then, the Buckeyes (23-7, 12-5) have won four in a row, including a win over No. 4 Michigan State and a win over No. 2 Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., on Tuesday night.
While Ohio State has gotten stronger, the teams ahead in the standings have stumbled to give the Buckeyes a chance.
Ravenel, a Boston College transfer who has developed into a vital component of the team, said it’s gratifying to know how far his team has come since last month’s loss to the Badgers.
“The Big Ten is the best league in the country. So it’s a good feeling,” he said of the Buckeyes’ late run to contention.
But then he makes it clear that he’s not thinking past Illinois (21-10, 8-9), which beat the Buckeyes 74-55 at home on Jan. 5.
“The only thing I’m really concerned about is, for any of that (championship tie) to ever even happen we have to get this game,” he said. “Because it cannot occur if we don’t win.”
Should Ohio State win and Michigan beat Indiana, that would leave those three teams deadlocked for the top spot.
Should Michigan State also win at home against Northwestern today, they would join a four-team tie for the top spot.
Should all those dominoes fall, it would mark the sixth time in eight years that Matta and the Buckeyes would have captured at least a piece of the championship trophy.
“The one thing I’ve told them is that you can’t win anything if we don’t play well (today),” Matta said. “You’re playing (an Illinois) team that literally destroyed you on Jan. 5. And quite honestly, there hasn’t been a whole lot more conversation than that.”