- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - One of the strengths for No. 1 Ohio State all season has been the Buckeyes’ cohesion on the court and common ground off it.

The players, who hang around together even when they don’t have to, are also tight with coach Thad Matta. They can almost finish his sentences.

But there’s one big thing on which the coach and his team disagree this week heading into the Big Ten tournament.

Matta wants his Buckeyes (29-2), the regular-season champions and top seed in Indianapolis, to simply play their best. Whatever happens beyond that is fine with him.

But that’s not good enough for senior David Lighty.

“I’m trying to win,” he said with a laugh after Wednesday’s practice. “Playing good and winning at the same time is great. If we keep playing like we’ve been the past five or six games, it’s going to be pretty hard to beat us.”

The Buckeyes come in having won their last four games by an average of 23 points. They took the regular-season title by two games. They’re a lock for the NCAA tournament, and a lock to be a No. 1 seed in it.

Yet they refuse to look at the conference tournament as just something to get through.

“Honestly, it’s just another trophy to put in coach Matta’s office,” said freshman Jared Sullinger, a first-team All-Big Ten performer. “We’re out here to win. This is another step toward where we want to go. We got to keep going.”

The Buckeyes open play on Friday after a first-round bye. They play the winner of the tournament’s first game on Thursday, between ninth-seeded Minnesota and eighth-seeded Northwestern.

“As I told the team, I just want us to go over there and play the best that we possibly can,” Matta said, saying playing three games in three days requires a lot of mental toughness. “It’s also the whole deal of, ‘Well, we just played yesterday.’ But, so did our opponent. You go to the next game and it’s, ‘Well, we’ve played the last two days.’ Well, so did our opponent.”

The 11-team get-together could have a profound influence on several conference teams. Only Ohio State, Purdue (25-6) and Wisconsin (23-7) are assured of spots in the 68-team NCAA tournament the following week.

Tenuously sitting on the bubble are Illinois (19-12), Michigan (19-12), Michigan State (17-13) and Penn State (16-13). Northwestern (17-12), Minnesota (17-13), Iowa (11-19) and Indiana (12-19) would need to win it all at Conseco Fieldhouse to make the NCAA field.

Of course, the teams with their tickets already punched for the NCAAs still need to play well to move up in seeding or possibly stay closer to home to play in the first and second rounds.

All of which provides a fresh start for everyone.

“It’s almost like a new season,” said Purdue’s star guard, E’Twaun Moore. “What happened before almost doesn’t matter, because you either win or you go home.”

Other first-round games include 10th-seeded Iowa against No. 7 Michigan State and No. 11 Indiana against sixth-seeded Penn State.

“I think we need another win,” said Nittany Lions coach Ed DeChellis. “I’ve looked at some teams, their RPIs and their strength of schedule and they don’t have what we have. I think that’s what makes it very interesting when people talk about this team is in, this team is out. Other teams might have another win or two, but again, who are you playing?”

Michigan State has made a trip to the Final Four almost an annual occurrence. But coach Tom Izzo isn’t so certain this year. He knows that his team must show some energy in Indianapolis or might not make the grade.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out our backs are against the wall,” he said. “We enhance our chances with a win on Thursday.”

The quarterfinals are Friday, semis on Saturday and the championship game is nationally televised on Sunday afternoon _ and almost leads directly into the announcement of the NCAA brackets.

Teams such as Illinois, which has had a solid season but has been erratic at times, feel as though they’re on the cusp of playing their best basketball of the season.

“It gives you a little bit of a second chance,” coach Bruce Weber said of the conference tournament.

After Ohio State finished its scheduled games last week with a dominating 93-65 rout of Wisconsin, which had earlier ended the Buckeyes’ perfect season at 24-0, Lighty said he broke the season down into three segments. Step one was the regular season and winning a title. Step two was the conference tournament. The big tournament rounded out the trifecta.

“It’s 0-0. Everyone’s got a clean slate,” he said. “What you did in the regular season really doesn’t mean anything. It’s kind of like starting the season over. You’ve got to come ready to play and _ what is it _ 120 minutes until hopefully mission No. 2 is complete.”

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