- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State coach Thad Matta had a sales pitch that most coaches may use, but few can hardly deliver on: Come to my school and we're going to win championships. Not down the road, but right away -- league, tournament, and NCAA.
This wasn't spin. It wasn't some sort of fantasy. It was, in this fluid era of college hoops, a distinct possibility for a talented group of freshmen.
Forget for a minute that Michigan's Fab Five never even won a Big Ten title, let alone a national one (falling in two straight finals). The past had no bearing on Matta's and the Buckeyes' goals. The climate is ripe for a young but talented team to win a conference championship and much more.
"[Matta] laid it out for us and said we would win the Big Ten, [and] the national championship. He basically told us what we're going to do, and I believed him," freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. said. "He had so much confidence in us in year one."
But along the way to freshmen orientation in the fall, there was a major bump, something out of Matta's control that legitimately had him doubting if all of that was possible. Superstar center Greg Oden suffered ligament damage in his right wrist that kept him out for the first two months of the season, making Matta coach two teams -- one without Oden, and ultimately one with the superstar center.
That makes getting Ohio State to the Big Ten title extremely satisfying for Matta.
"I had it in the back of mind that we had a chance [to win the league]," a drained but energized Matta said in the hallway of the Value City Arena Sunday afternoon after Ohio State clinched its second straight league title by beating Wisconsin in what was probably the most exciting 49-48 game you'll see. (Read the score and you would think this was dreadful, but experience it in this raucous scarlet and gray, towel waving capacity 19,044 faithful and you would beg to differ).
"So many things had to fall into place for us to win the Big Ten," said Matta, who added that he told his wife Sunday morning that the Buckeyes would have to score 70 to win (Ha!). "We went to Michigan State and Purdue and won both when no other teams did. (Wisconsin lost at MSU and also at Indiana, where OSU didn't have to play due to the unbalanced Big Ten slate.)
"I've always said that the most important part of the season is the first two weeks and but we didn't have Greg for the first two months," he added.
Matta laughed off being picked as the Big Ten favorite in the preseason, especially with the Buckeyes returning only four contributing players and adding five. He specifically told ESPN.com in the fall that he didn't understand how the Buckeyes could be picked so high with so many unknowns -- not just in the Big Ten, but in the top five in the country. Oden's wrist injury and the uncertainty that followed made it natural to pull back on any predictions. Ohio State's inability to close out on the road in big games provided an easy out, as well, although there was nothing wrong with losing at North Carolina sans Oden, at Florida in Oden's fifth game, and at Wisconsin in the third game of the Big Ten season.
Since then, the Buckeyes simply have matured and evolved into a much more balanced team.
"No. 1, Greg has much more mobility in his right hand, is in better shape and we have a better understanding of how to play with him," Matta said. "We're better defensively. In that game [at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' last loss on Jan. 9], we had flaws and it was a turnover fest with layups."
Wisconsin's Jason Chappell did a solid job bodying up on Oden in the first game but didn't have as much help Sunday because of an elbow injury to Brian Butch in the first half. Butch's right elbow was in ice and in a sling after the game, but he said the grimace of pain was more out of disappointment than actual anguish and that his elbow would be evaluated Monday. He wasn't about to rule himself out for any games at this point.
Chappell said that he noticed how the Buckeyes are making better use of Oden seven weeks later.
"They've got better ball movement now," Chappell said. "And they're using him more."
The Buckeyes easily could have lost this game, and perhaps the Big Ten title. Oden had five turnovers, including three traveling calls. The Buckeyes couldn't control the backboard, getting outrebounded by nine and giving up 13 offensive boards. They shot a mere 25 percent (2 of 8) on 3s in the second half. And they couldn't find Wisconsin reserve guard Jason Bohannon, who buried three 3s to offset an average day for national-player-of-the-year candidate Alando Tucker (three fouls, 12 points, 0 of 5 on 3s, 5 of 15 overall).
Ohio State also got burned by a Bohannon bullet pass to Tucker with 55 seconds left that created a layup that gave the Badgers a 48-47 lead. Chappell then got a piece of a Ron Lewis shot and Ohio State had to commit four fouls to get the Badgers to the free-throw line with 20 seconds left.
Wisconsin senior Kammron Taylor, who made 12 of 16 at the line in the first meeting, missed the front end of a one-and-one, though, and Ohio State called time with 16 seconds left. The play was designed, according to Conley, to go to Oden in the post, but it wasn't available, so Conley said he called for the ball back from Harris and drove to the hole. He converted the floating runner with 3.9 seconds left.
"I definitely wanted the ball in my hands and I almost regretted passing it, because I wanted it back," Conley said.
Bohannon raced up the court after the bucket and buried a 3-pointer, saying afterward that he didn't know Wisconsin had called a timeout. Bohannon was guarded on the play, but Matta and the rest of the Buckeyes knew a timeout was called. On the ensuing inbounds, Wisconsin managed got the ball in to Taylor who made it to the right side of the lane, but his twisting jumper was blocked at the buzzer.
"Our poise was a plus," Conley said. "We were talking in the huddle saying that we're going to win the game."
Conley said he still believed the Big Ten title was in reach even when the Buckeyes lost the big games prior to this one, because they had played so well for at least a half.
Still, to win two Big Ten titles in Matta's three years in Columbus is quite remarkable. Last season's was more improbable since, as Matta said, the Buckeyes didn't know they would be allowed to play in the postseason until March 10, when the NCAA approved of the Buckeyes' self-imposed sanctions from the previous year.
Ohio State already was a likely lock to be in Lexington for the first and second rounds while Wisconsin was ticketed to be in Chicago, but now the Buckeyes also have the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the Midwest regional in St. Louis. Still, Wisconsin is hardly dead for a No. 1.
The only team that you can probably say is untouchable as a top seed is UCLA in the West. The rest are still fluid with Florida losing Saturday and a road game at Tennessee looming, North Carolina going down at Maryland on Sunday and with a road game still to go at Georgia Tech this week, and surging Kansas knocking on the doorstep of the top-seed line.
"I told them [in the locker room that] this was step one," said Matta, wanting to make sure that the Buckeyes also were focused on winning at Michigan and then in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, where a possible rematch with the Badgers is pending.
Matta briefly contemplated whether this was Oden's final home game for the Buckeyes, and noted that when the crowd was serenading Oden with "one more year," he was as well. The reality, though, is that the Buckeyes aren't concerned about next season. They won the Big Ten right on schedule. Now it's on to the conference tourney and the NCAA title -- just like they've planned from the moment Matta got the class to commit.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.