Just two weeks ago, many observers around the college basketball landscape had questions about whether Ohio State was an NCAA tournament team or not. Without a win against a quality opponent all season, and after struggling through slow starts and sluggish play, the Buckeyes found themselves squarely on the bubble.
After a second loss in Big Ten play to Iowa in which they got off to a terrible start, Thad Matta's squad found itself 3-3 in conference play and searching for answers.
"I was so mad after the Iowa game," Matta said. "Not that they beat us, but the way we played."
With a road game in Evanston against Northwestern, a place Ohio State seems to always struggle, and a pair of matchups with ranked opponents in Indiana and Maryland on the horizon, it was clear the Buckeyes were entering a crucial stretch of their season.
"I've been saying it all year: We've got to find that solid forty minutes," Matta said.
The search for that solid forty minutes led the Buckeyes' head coach to juggle his lineup, inserting Anthony Lee and Jae'Sean Tate as starters in place of Amir Williams and Marc Loving. After once again struggling out of the gate and falling behind by ten early to the Wildcats, Ohio State ratcheted up its defensive intensity and rode 33 points from freshman D'Angelo Russell to a two-point victory.
"To get down the way we got down, to battle back the way we did was big for us," senior Sam Thompson said after the 69-67 win. "That's a good building block."
And build on it they did. The Buckeyes followed up the nail-biter in Evanston with convincing back-to-back home wins against the Hoosiers and Terrapins. Russell led the way, as he has all season, turning in a pair of double-doubles, and Tate made his move into the starting lineup look like a master stroke. The Pickerington native notched a career-high 20 points against Indiana and followed up with 16 points and a career-high 8 rebounds against Maryland.
"Jae'Sean played like he was 7'5"," Matta said of the 6'4" Tate after the 82-70 win over the Hoosiers.
Ohio State received an additional boost after its 80-56 trouncing of the Terps when 4-star recruit JaQuan Lyle committed to an already highly-rated 2015 recruiting class. The 6'5" shooting guard who had previously been committed to both Louisville and Oregon, provides the Buckeyes with scoring insurance should Russell decide to go pro after his first year in Columbus.
As the calendar page turns to February, Ohio State sits in a logjam in the Big Ten standings behind Wisconsin. But the team has much-needed momentum and is in much better shape than many could have foreseen just a couple of weeks ago.
"To turn the corner 6-3 from where we were, I'm pretty happy," Matta said after the Maryland game.
Now the Buckeyes begin the Big Ten stretch run with four of five games on the road, including tough matchups with surprising Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan. The team will also play Rutgers on the road and host Penn State. If Ohio State can continue to bring energy and intensity from the opening tip, its not out of the question that its winning streak could run to eight by the end of that string.
"It's like I told the guys after the [Maryland] game," Matta said. "We've won three in a row now. What do we do next? Do we get complacent? The biggest challenge we have is let's keep getting better."
If the Buckeyes are truly hitting their stride, the run through the back half of the conference schedule and beyond could be a lot of fun to watch for fans of the scarlet and grey.