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Buckeyes eager for another shot

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was no need to print up a motivational shirt.

Aaron Craft didn't write down the score of the game anywhere to serve as a constant reminder of how close Ohio State had been to the national title game.

Heading into a long-anticipated rematch at home on Saturday, the Buckeyes point guard has little use for conversations with his coach about what happened the last time his team ran into Kansas, either.

"You know, it's all in my head," Craft said. "My head is probably my worst enemy sometimes."

The villain rattling around inside his brain, though, essentially has remained the same since the Jayhawks rallied from a second-half deficit to knock off the Buckeyes in the Final Four in New Orleans, one game shy of a shot at cutting down the nets.

And so it was on a recent Thursday as the Buckeyes went through a session in the weight room and Craft pushed through his workout routine. There was a nonconference opponent waiting in two days and still one other opponent between that game and another crack at Kansas, but the thoughts still focused on the team that ended his season eight months ago.

With every rep he squeezed out, the memories of 64-62 and all the minor details flooded back. And he never has needed to obsessively watch the game film to get them right as he builds himself and the No. 7 Buckeyes up for a chance at some measure of revenge against the No. 9 Jayhawks.

"It kind of gives you that little extra oomph when you're trying to lift and you might not have it," Craft said. "It's always there. You step in that gym, you look up at the banners, you look at the things on the wall and think about what could have been.

"You constantly think about the possessions that you could have changed, could have done things different, could have done things better. I definitely use it as motivation, and I think as a whole, our entire team looks back on that and knew we were one possession away from going to the national championship. Hopefully we can come out and see where we are when we play them."

The Buckeyes certainly could use a measuring stick after spending the past month largely cruising past overmatched opponents, gearing up for both a stiff challenge from Kansas and the grind that is waiting when Big Ten play opens in January.

Their only previous test of significance so far this season was nearly a month ago on the road at Duke, a game which has a bit in common with what transpired against the Jayhawks. Ohio State played the type of hard-nosed defense it has been known for under coach Thad Matta, holding both opponents under 25 points in the first half. And the Buckeyes were undone partially in the second half as their 3-point shooting abandoned them, connecting on exactly 25 percent of attempts after intermission in both games.

Those similarities might be little more than coincidence given the differences in Ohio State's roster then and now. Most notably, star forward Jared Sullinger left early for the NBA and veteran scorer William Buford graduated, leaving Deshaun Thomas to carry the scoring load and putting more pressure on Craft to contribute on both ends of the floor. But if the style of play has changed some for the Buckeyes, with both of those returning starters and the other three that will join them having all felt the sting of coming up short against the Jayhawks, the motivation at least should stay the same for each of them.

"I don't know where Kansas is rankings-wise or any of that, but I know this -- they're a heck of a basketball team," Matta said. "Our guys know that Kansas ended our season last year."

The Buckeyes clearly don't need Matta or anybody else to remind them of that fact.

And while knocking off the Jayhawks won't change what happened in New Orleans, it would provide some measure of satisfaction if they can finish the job this time.

"Just playing against them again, I'm really excited for that opportunity," Craft said. "Not many teams get a chance to do that.

"I'm trying to put myself in the best situation I can so when I play them again, I'll be ready."