COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jim Foster is presented with the problem of inspiring his Ohio State women's team to play hard in a tournament that barely acknowledges what the Buckeyes already have done.
"I don't know why they have them, to be quite frank with you," the veteran coach said, referring to conference tournaments. "How you can earn something in three days that someone played two months to earn, is something I don't quite understand. But that's just me."
The Buckeyes dominated all season while becoming the first men's or women's team to win a Big Ten title six years in a row. Yet for all their hard work, about all they have to show for it is a first-round bye (along with three other teams), the No. 1 seeding and a regular-season trophy.
It also rankles Foster, a winner of 711 games in a glittering 32-year career including the last eight at Ohio State, that the conference's reserved spot in the NCAA tournament goes to the winner of Sunday's title game.
"The fact that the automatic bid goes with it is even sillier to me," he said.
Ohio State won the regular-season title by three games, locked up a share of the championship earlier than any team ever had and clearly has shown itself to be the conference's best all season. But the Buckeyes must prove themselves all over again.
Foster said he's smart enough to know that even though he doesn't like conference tournaments, he recognizes that it's his job to get his team ready for one.
"Because I don't favor the concept doesn't mean I don't understand the reality of the fact that we have games," he said. "I view it from our perspective as a preparation for the postseason. And that's what I will tell my team."
No matter the opponent, starting post player Jantel Lavender said the Buckeyes realize what's at stake.
"You have to shift (focus) a little bit because you're only guaranteed one game in the tournament," she said. "You don't have that leeway, that extra cushion, to say, 'Well, we already have the Big Ten won.' You have to come and play extremely hard every night. You don't have off days or days when you can be lackadaisical and still win. Our team understands that."
Last week Lavender became only the second player (along with former Buckeye Jessica Davenport) to win Big Ten player of the year honors three years in a row. She led the conference in scoring (20.9 points a game) and field-goal shooting (52 percent), and her 10.4 rebounds a game was third-best in the league.
Ohio State point guard Samantha Prahalis, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.1 assists in Big Ten play, joined Lavender as an unanimous first-team selection on the all-conference team.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes were the top seed in the tournament but were upset by Illinois 64-58 in the quarterfinal game.
"I don't think about that," said shooting guard Brittany Johnson, an honorable-mention all-conference selection. "I think about what's ahead."
Lavender said she prefers to remember a year ago, when the Buckeyes rolled over two opponents before edging Purdue in the Big Ten tournament finale.
"The defense that we played last year, it was a tone-setter for the tournament. Everybody was on the same page, everybody played ferocious defense," she said. "We were playing as a team. We were unselfish with the ball. We played extremely well and I want a reenactment of that."