INDIANAPOLIS — At this time last season, Ohio State went into the Big Ten tournament thinking that, as regular-season co-champions, two more victories would enable it to host games in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
But the Buckeyes lost to Purdue in a conference semifinal after an opening victory over Northwestern, and that stumble put them on to a bus bound for Lexington, Kentucky, for the NCAAs. They defeated Western Kentucky and host Kentucky to advance to the Sweet 16.
The team’s resume is even better this time around with an outright Big Ten championship, a No. 13 national ranking, the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation and an RPI of 6.
The thinking is Ohio State (24-6) would secure home court for the first weekend of the NCAA by advancing to the conference championship game. The Buckeyes begin their postseason quest at noon Friday against Rutgers (20-11) in a Big Ten quarterfinal at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Video: Kevin McGuff talks about Big Ten tournament
Coach Kevin McGuff said the team’s body of work as it stands is good enough.
“No question, we’d love to host and be able to play in front of the great fans in Columbus,” he said. “I think we’ve already done enough. I don’t think by any rational measure — eye test, RPI, strength of schedule — why we wouldn’t host if we lost the first (conference tournament) game. But that’s me.”
Ohio State has won four Big Ten tournament titles, but none since 2011. It hasn’t lost its conference tournament opener since 2008.
Second-seeded Maryland, which finished one game behind, is going for a fourth straight championship.
“Of course, we want to win it because we’re in it,” McGuff said. “But if we don’t, we’ll prepare for the NCAA Tournament and that’s it. I’m only worried about that first game.”
Senior center Stephanie Mavunga can’t wait to play. Last season, she motored from the locker room to the court on a scooter because of a walking boot to protect an injured foot. The year before, she sat out after transferring from North Carolina.
“I can’t take any playing time for granted, especially after what happened last year. It was a hard time for me sitting and watching my teammates,” she said. “But I got to see how things go in the Big Ten tournament. I think we’re hungry and humble. We’ve got a bull’s-eye on our backs.”
The biggest question is whether Ohio State will play all-out at the defensive end. Before an eight-game winning streak to close Big Ten play, there was a frightful losing streak with defensive breakdowns against Michigan (84-75), Maryland (99-69) and Iowa (103-89). There also was an 84-65 nonconference loss to South Florida on Feb. 11.
“You definitely know what’s at stake: It’s win or go home,” Mavunga said. “We have five seniors and we know what we’re competing for every single night. You have to bring your A game and compete offensively and defensively.”
The Buckeyes are playing against teams that have been game-planning for them for years.
“They know our individuals assets, but that’s what makes our team special,” senior guard Linnae Harper said. “We have a lot of players with different dynamics and we’re very versatile. As long as we come together and are focused doing what we’ve got to do as a team, that will give us an advantage versus our opponents.”