CHICAGO - The stakes are very different for Ohio State and Michigan when they meet here today in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
Those betting with the house say Michigan needs another couple quality wins to force its last-minute case to be included in the NCAA tournament field. Ohio State, the Big Ten regular season champion and the No. 1 ranked team in the country, has figured prominently in the NCAA picture for at least a couple of weeks.
Michigan (21-11) has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, and after you eliminate that appearance and the one in 1996 due to those
records being vacated as punishment for NCAA rules violations, it has been 12 years - going back to the 1995 tournament - since the Wolverines have been there and been proud about it.
That makes today's date with the Buckeyes so critical for Michigan, a 49-40 winner over Minnesota in yesterday's opening round of the Big Ten tournament. Top-seeded Ohio State had a bye, but it was just six days ago that the Buckeyes had to make a frantic comeback and score the game's final 10 points to beat Michigan 65-61 in Ann Arbor.
"We feel like we've been playing our best basketball in the past 10 days or so," Michigan senior Brent Petway said. "It's going to be another fun game. It's tournament time, and we'll be ready for it."
The Buckeyes (27-3) steam into the conference tournament on a 14-game winning streak. They claimed a second straight Big Ten regular season championship, and finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country in both polls.
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, who took part in the NCAA tournament in eight of his nine seasons as an assistant coach at Duke, and in all four of his years as a player for the Blue Devils, has yet to get his Wolverines to NCAA tournament in his five previous seasons at Michigan. He knows today's game with Ohio State, like last week's meeting, carries significant NCAA tournament ramifications.
"We played pretty solid at times in that game, and we put ourselves in position to win," Amaker said about the previous matchup with the Buckeyes. "But they are a very talented team, and they can beat you a lot of different ways. You have to beat them and we were in position to do that, but we just didn't finish it down the stretch."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta said his team was very fortunate to escape from Ann Arbor with that win, and the No. 1 ranking intact.
"That was a very difficult battle, and a great challenge for our guys," Matta said. "We had to show a lot of poise and maintain our composure, and that's something we are going to need to be able to do in the Big Ten tournament as well. Everyone is going to come at you with everything they've got, so we have to be ready."
Ohio State freshman guard Mike Conley Jr. said the Buckeyes are expecting every team, not just the rival Wolverines, to give Ohio State their best shot.
"Coach told us our target is getting a lot bigger, and teams are aiming for us," Conley said. "We had a lot of close games down the stretch and teams are going to try to get their next shot at us in the tournament."
With the first round bye, the Buckeyes still would play three games in three days if they advance to Sunday's final, but junior guard Jamar Butler said Ohio State has the depth to handle that kind of demand.
"We know going in, the weapons and versatility we have on this team," he said. "Three games in three days wears your body out, but you need to keep your mind on the game. And we have a deep bench this year, so we can put out any five on the court and get the job done."
Matta said his youth-filled Buckeyes have come a long way this season to get to this point where they are the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Matta called Ohio State an uncertain commodity at the start of the season, especially with freshman 7-footer Greg Oden out of the lineup nursing a broken wrist. There was a lot of anticipation and excitement surrounding what many called the school's best freshman class ever, but no one had played a game yet.
"At the beginning of the season, there were so many unknowns of how we would come together," Matta said. "I'm proud of the fact that we are in this position, but I told the guys that being No. 1 won't score us a point in a game."
Oden said the team is well-grounded, and won't get caught thinking about the chase for a national championship.
"We are not looking ahead because we have to just win games," Oden said.
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