COLUMBUS — Ohio State coach Thad Matta is busily preparing his team for what promises to be, based on a crazy season of upsets and close calls involving its national powerhouses, a crazy Big Ten Tournament.
Matta, who seldom lets his emotions get very far away, first had something he wanted to get off his chest before talking about the tournament that gets under way today at the United Center in Chicago.
Two of his players — Big Ten scoring leader Deshaun Thomas and versatile point guard Aaron Craft — were listed on the Big Ten’s first team in media voting this week. But Matta was rankled that the league’s coaches voted to give the defensive player of the year honor to Indiana’s Victor Oladipo rather than Craft.
“The only one that I’m amazed is ... I think Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Matta began. “But Aaron Craft is in another whole world when it comes to defense.”
Matta said his Buckeyes (23-7), who play the winner of Nebraska and Purdue in Friday night’s quarterfinals, would not have finished tied for second in the conference, let alone be No. 10 in the country, if not for the pesky, turnover-producing Craft’s sleight of hand on defense.
“This basketball team would not be anywhere near where it is without the impact he makes on the defensive end,” Matta said. “I’m not taking anything away from Oladipo. I think the guy is awesome. But Aaron doesn’t fly through the air and pin shots on the glass; he takes them from the guy’s hands when he’s on the floor.”
For his part, Craft, a junior who holds Ohio State’s career record for steals and already ranks seventh in Big Ten history, said Oladipo deserved the award that he had won last season.
“(Oladipo) did a great job of coming out and having a great year. I don’t think it’s a knock on me; it’s a testament to what he was able to do,” Craft said. “He’s that guy out there you’re always worrying about on the defensive end. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. And obviously, they won the Big Ten championship so you’ve got to give him the edge.”
Matta pointed to how many times Craft forced five-second calls during the season, and how often he changed games by igniting Ohio State’s transition game with a steal.
“I don’t even care about the Big Ten (award); (Craft) should be the national defender of the year,” Matta said. “Maybe I’m biased, but you have to gameplan for him. As an opposing team, you have to be aware of where he is when you’re running your offense. I’ve been in this league for nine years and I’ve never seen anybody have an impact on a basketball team like he does on the defensive end.”
The Buckeyes, with Craft disrupting opposing offenses, have won five in a row including wins at then-No. 2 Indiana and at home against fourth-ranked Michigan State.
Ohio State has played in the Big Ten title game four years in a row and is brimming with confidence heading into this year’s tournament.
“We’re playing awesome basketball right now,” said Thomas, who averaged 19.7 points to top the Big Ten. “We’re trusting in the system and we’re playing our roles. We know once we come and play our best defense, we’re the best defensive team in the country in my eyes. We just have to keep it going.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Buckeyes seem to play so well in the conference tournament is Matta’s simple instructions each year to his team.
“These tournaments are for fans,” he said. “There’s no magic speech I’ll give going to Chicago. Honestly, we’ve kind of been very laid back going into this tournament in terms of saying, ‘Hey, let’s go have some fun and play some basketball.’ That’s sort of how we’ve always been.”
Ohio State has won the Big Ten Tournament three times in the last seven years and lost in the finale three other times. The only time the Buckeyes have missed the championship game in that span was 2007-08.
Four teams in the nation’s top 10 will be on display: No. 3 Indiana, No. 6 Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State and the Buckeyes. Wisconsin is ranked 22nd, and two other Big Ten teams — Illinois and Minnesota — were listed among the top 10 teams at one point this season.
“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Craft said. “Having all of us there at once and at a new arena that none of us have really been to. It’s going to be a good experience. Hopefully we can make a weekend of it. We’ll see.”