Last year's championship ring reminds Buckeyes of this year's goal

Mike Popovich

Jamar Butler wore his 2007 Big Ten tournament championship ring for the first time this season Wednesday.

The ring previously sat in a case in the Ohio State senior guard’s room. It will always have a special significance, but the eve of the conference opener seemed like an appropriate time for Butler to remind himself, his teammates and everyone else who the defending champions are.

“It’s Big Ten play now,” Butler said. “You gotta show ’em.”

The Buckeyes’ first Big Ten test comes tonight at Illinois. The two-time defending champions have won their last 13 regular-season league games, including six straight on the road.

Many outsiders don’t expect Ohio State to complete a three-peat this season. They look at Michigan State, Indiana or possibly Wisconsin having a shot at unseating the Buckeyes, who have just four players who saw significant time last year

Butler is not listening to them.

“We’re the team to beat again, I will say that,” Butler said.

The Buckeyes (9-3) appear more prepared for the grind of Big Ten play than they were earlier this season.

A stretch of five games in 11 days took a little out of them. Ohio State faced four ranked teams during that period, winning once.

The Buckeyes regrouped during exam week and have not lost in a little more than a month. They will bring a five-game winning streak into tonight’s game against the Fighting Illini.

“I think we’re making strides toward the right direction,” Head Coach Thad Matta said. “This team is going to continue to hopefully get better every time we step on the floor. But I think the progress we have made has been pretty good.”

Matta said the start of the conference season now creates a long-term mindset. Each game has a little more meaning to it. The opponent may dictate your style of play.

Many of Matta’s players have never gone through it at this level. Experiencing it for the first time on the road means the Buckeyes will have to sustain their focus for 40 minutes.

“Staying together and not losing your composure when a team goes on a run on you, which is going to happen,” Matta said. “The focus and concentration has to be on what we need to do every possession.”

The Buckeyes have made most of their possessions count in recent weeks.

Leading scorer Kosta Koufos has averaged 16.5 points over his last four games. Othlello Hunter, Evan Turner, David Lighty and Jon Diebler have shot at least 55 percent from the field while playing more than 20 minutes a game during that stretch.

Diebler finding his shooting range comes on the heels of a massive slump. Ohio high school’s all-time leading scorer has hit almost 61 percent (14-of-23) of his 3-pointers in his last four games.

All of this will not mean much if Ohio State is not successful in the Big Ten.

“You’re in league play now and it’s an entirely new season for us,” Butler said. “We’re going for another ring. Night-in and night-out you’re banging against teams in the Big Ten and it’s rough.”

Seeing the ring Butler wore Wednesday is one incentive for freshmen like Turner.

“I want one,” Turner said. “It’s real silver and real diamonds. I haven’t had that yet. I’m pretty excited to try to get one.”

Reach Repository sports writer Mike Popovich at (330) 580-8341 or e-mail: