By RUSTY MILLER/AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - As he was preparing to speak with reporters on Monday, Ohio State coach Thad Matta coughed and sneezed. He said several of his players also had bad colds.
Someone said, “At least you don’t have any big games to play.”
“No,” he said with a grin. “It’s another week.”
Far from it. The 10th-ranked Buckeyes face a daunting stretch when they travel to play No. 3 Michigan on Tuesday night – the first time they’ve met when both are in the Top 10 – then host top-ranked Indiana on Sunday.
Point guard Aaron Craft made the usual disclaimer – the Buckeyes wouldn’t be looking past anybody and they’re only worried about the next opponent – but then conceded that players do try to gauge what it will take to win a conference title.
“You think about that when the season starts and every game coming in,” he said. “We lost the two (games), and we just wanted to get to the halfway point in the Big Ten season 7-2 and we were fortunate enough to do that. You always have got to play with a bigger picture in mind. That helps us play better. It gives every possession and every situation more significance. You take it more seriously if it’s in the grander scope of things.”
It couldn’t get much grander than this week.
Michigan (20-2, 7-2) would seem to have plenty of motivation. The Wolverines are coming off an 81-73 loss on Saturday night that knocked them out of the No. 1 spot. They were atop the Associated Press poll for the first time since Nov. 30, 1992 – but their stay there lasted exactly one week. That loss dropped them two spots in the latest media voting.
On top of that, their only previous loss was a 56-53 setback at Ohio State on Jan. 13. Deshaun Thomas had 20 points for the Buckeyes in that game including the first and last baskets in a 16-0 first-half spurt that helped them build a 21-point lead. That barely held up when a tying stepback 15-footer by Columbus native Trey Burke in the final seconds rattled around and out.
The Buckeyes (17-4, 7-2) know they cannot afford many more losses if they want to remain in contention for a fourth straight conference title.
“It’s going to mean a lot for this team,” said Thomas, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20 points a game. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be big if we get these two wins.”
Matta was asked if he ever tries to do the math of what it’ll take his team to win a regular-season title in the Big Ten.
“Yeah, I sat down and broke down everybody’s schedule and put up a flow chart,” he deadpanned before admitting he didn’t know who the Buckeyes played beyond their games this week.
The hardest part of Ohio State’s schedule lies ahead, starting with this treacherous week.
The game against Indiana (20-2, 8-1) begins a span of four home games in five starts for the Buckeyes, with contests vs. the Hoosiers and Northwestern before a huge road game at Wisconsin, followed by games at Value City Arena against Minnesota and Michigan State.
Then come difficult road games at Northwestern and Indiana before closing the regular season at home against Illinois, which destroyed the Buckeyes 74-55 back on Jan. 5 in Assembly Hall.
The first step comes Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Wolverines are 13-0 at Crisler Center this season and 28-1 over the last two years.
“The biggest concern right now is going up and playing a Michigan team that just took a loss,” Craft said. “They’re going to be ready to get after it, not only because they just lost but because we were their first loss of the year.”
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