COLUMBUS, Ohio — After getting through its toughest stretch of the season, Ohio State is back at No. 1.
For the third week in a row The Associated Press Top 25 poll has had a new team on top. The Buckeyes climbed a spot over Duke, which lost at Virginia Tech on Saturday night.
The Buckeyes welcome their return.
"I tell our team all the time we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season," coach Thad Matta said on Monday. "We want to be playing our best basketball in March. Moving to No. 1 is a tribute to how hard our guys have worked all year. We appreciate the recognition and our guys certainly deserve it."
The Buckeyes were No. 1 for four weeks after reeling off a 24-0 record. Then came losses at Wisconsin and at Purdue in a span of nine days.
, sandwiched around a win over Michigan State.
Coming off two wins, and with two regular-season games remaining, the Buckeyes have a quick turnaround after Sunday's 82-61 home win over Indiana with a game at Penn State on Tuesday night. Then comes a showdown at home with No. 10 Wisconsin on Sunday.
The Buckeyes (27-2, 14-2) need one win to clinch at least a share of their fourth Big Ten championship in six years. Two wins, and they're assured of their third outright title in that span.
David Lighty, a fifth-year senior who is the Buckeyes' defensive specialist and third-leading scorer, said the immediate concern is winning the conference title.
"It means a lot. That's our No. 1 goal right now," he said. "That's our first step to reaching our second goal. So you've got to take care of the task at hand. It's like coach always says, it's one game at a time. When we do that, everything else just falls into place."
Lighty already has two Big Ten championship rings. He said he shows them to his teammates.
"It's big for us; everyone wants a ring," he said. "So hanging another banner up would be great."
Matta is a sterling 183-56 in his seven years at Ohio State, where he has become known as an elite recruiter. He has had to replenish the cupboard several times, after losing freshmen stars Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos and Byron Mullens to the NBA draft after just one season.
Also, imagine how good the Buckeyes would be if Evan Turner — last year's consensus national player of the year and the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft — had returned for his senior season.
Matta is 285-87 in 11 years as a head coach — an average annual record of 26-8 — during stints at his alma mater, Butler, along with Xavier and Ohio State.
Now the Buckeyes play in big games on national television all the time. He and his players have gotten used to the glare of the spotlights.
"I always tell our guys, for me to say, 'Today's a big game' would be wasting my breath," Matta said. "They have a very good sense of what it's about. I can remember many, many years ago as an assistant, I'd call my buddies and say, 'You're not going to believe this, but we're going to be on ESPN tonight. Now, it's a midnight tipoff, but it's the only time we could get on. Make sure you stay up and check me out.' Now it's, we're on television again. It is what it is."
Ohio State received 45 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel, easily outdistancing Kansas, which moves up one place with 14 No. 1 votes.
BYU, which had five first-place votes, jumped from seventh to third, while Pittsburgh remained fourth, tied with Duke, which had one first-place vote. Purdue, Texas, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Wisconsin round out the top 10.
The next 10 are Louisville, Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida, St. John's, Connecticut, Georgetown, Arizona, Villanova and Kentucky.
Rounding out the Top 25 are Vanderbilt, Missouri, Xavier, Texas A&M and newcomer Utah State.