COLUMBUS — The first settlers came Wednesday, armed with tents, sleeping bags, and the sustenance to endure five days on the basketball frontier.
Welcome to the sidewalk outside Value City Arena. Or, as the dozens of Ohio State undergraduates who inhabit this tent city call it, "Mattaritaville."
Sleep and study be damned, they have braved the rain and 20-degree cold to stake the best seats for top-ranked Indiana’s trip to Columbus today.
"I think it’s awesome," OSU coach and village namesake Thad Matta said, laughing. "To have that brand Mattaritaville is a tremendous thing."
Saturday, OSU players showed their appreciation by delivering pizzas to the students. Today, they hope to provide a much bigger reward. The sold-out game is the latest in a line of outsized Big Ten clashes.
Raising the stakes further, No. 10 Ohio State (17-5, 7-3 Big Ten) and the Hoosiers (20-3, 8-2) are coming off losses — and ill able to afford consecutive ones in an ultra-tight conference race. The Buckeyes, which fell in overtime at third-ranked Michigan on Tuesday, are one of three teams along with the Wolverines and Wisconsin with three Big Ten losses behind the Hoosiers and Michigan State (20-4, 9-2).
"It's a must-win for us and a must-win for them," OSU center Amir Wiliams said.
History suggests plenty of money will be on Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 8-10 all-time against top-ranked teams, with home wins each of the last two times they faced an Indiana squad atop the polls in 1983 and 1993. Under Matta, OSU is 2-1 against No. 1s in Columbus.
Where history does not repeat itself, meanwhile, is after OSU loses. With Kansas falling at lowly TCU on Wednesday — a second straight defeat that Jayhawks coach Bill Self said featured the "worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor" — the Buckeyes’ streak of 121 straight contests without consecutive losses is now the longest in Division I.
"This program takes great pride in that," forward Deshaun Thomas said. "If we get knocked down, what do we do next? We pick up and keep fighting."
Widely billed as the nation’s most complete team, the Hoosiers possess a balance OSU would envy. They score 83.3 points per game — tmost among major-conference schools — and have five players averaging double figures, led by 7-footer Cody Zeller (16. 2 points).
The Buckeyes got 17 points from Thomas against Michigan, but it was the play of his supporting cast that gave OSU a chance to win — and renewed hope for the future.
Most notably, help came from two sophomore regulars Matta has chided most about their effort and consistency. Forward LaQuinton Ross scored 16 points in 23 minutes off the bench while Williams often outplayed UM’s frontcourt. The 6-11 post scored a career-high nine points in 36 minutes — just the third time this season he played more than 20.
"I’ve just felt more aggressive these past couple games," Williams said. " ... [Against] Michigan, I felt like I played harder than I’ve ever played before, and ... I still feel like I can play harder. There’s still more in the tank."
He knows now is the time to empty it.
"There’s no room for error right now," Williams said. "We’re playing to win the Big Ten title."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.