INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—A few weeks ago, Ohio State’s run at perfection was the talk of college basketball.
One loss later, the Buckeyes are in a fight for their conference title.
Ohio State’s loss to Wisconsin last Saturday allowed Purdue back into the Big Ten race. The Buckeyes’ lead over the Boilermakers has been trimmed to two games, and Purdue can close the gap with a win at home against Ohio State on Sunday.
“Everyone in my mind, and I want our guys to feel the same way, we’re all in survival mode,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The fact that we’ve put ourselves in this position just doesn’t mean much. With five games still remaining, you’ve got five great challenges ahead of you.”
The second-ranked Buckeyes (25-1, 12-1 Big Ten) would regain firm control of the league race with a win. A loss for Purdue (21-5, 10-3) would virtually eliminate the 11th-ranked Boilermakers from contention—they’d trail by three games with four remaining.
“Basic math would tell you they’d (Ohio State) be in a very good position,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We can’t worry about anything besides just trying to compete and put ourselves in position to win a basketball game. If we do, then you’re one game closer.”
Several other factors make this a tantalizing matchup.
Two of the front-runners for conference player of the year meet in a battle of elite post players when Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger matches up with Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson.
Purdue is making a push for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and a win over the Buckeyes would look great on their NCAA tournament resume.
Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore has scored 1,989 career points, and could become the fifth Purdue player to score 2,000 or more in a career. Ohio State’s Jon Diebler has made 331 career 3-pointers, one short of the Big Ten record set by Penn State’s Pete Lisicky from 1994-1998.
Then, there’s the matter of the blowout in the first meeting. Ohio State dominated the Boilermakers in an 87-64 win at home on Jan. 25. Painter said it was the only time this season his team didn’t play hard.
“I think anytime you get embarrassed, it serves as motivation,” he said. “Whether it’s basketball or life, nobody likes to be embarrassed. You have to give Ohio State credit. They not just shot the ball well, they played well and played very, very hard. Hopefully, we can learn from that day and do a better job of competing on Sunday.”
Ohio State’s David Lighty knows the Boilermakers will try to redeem themselves. Now, the venue will be Mackey Arena, where Purdue is 14-0 this season.
“It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere,” Lighty said. “They’re trying to win a Big Ten championship just like us, so they’ll be ready and will have high energy.”
The Buckeyes led the earlier matchup 46-26 at halftime. Matta expects the Boilermakers to adjust.
“There’s certain times when things go really well for one team and maybe not as well for the other team,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of that fence. I mean, we obviously have a great amount of respect for Purdue and know how good a basketball team they truly are. I’d like to take the blueprint but I don’t think they’re going to allow us to duplicate it.”
National experts consistently have included Sullinger, Ohio State’s powerful inside presence, among the favorites for national player of the year. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman averages 17.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. Painter said the only way to stop him is to make him uncomfortable.
“There has to be some resistance there, but it’s easier said than done,” Painter said. “He’s a widebody who’s got great feet and understands angles. If you double him and it’s not a quick double, and he has time to see it or see over you, he’ll find one of their shooters.”
Johnson, a slender 6-10 senior, averages 20.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, is shooting 50 percent from the field and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots. Painter said Johnson, a preseason first-team All-American, belongs in the discussion for the national player of the year award.
“I think he definitely belongs in that conversation,” he said. “Why? His team has won, and he’s been very consistent. I think that’s important.”
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.