Denzel Valentine's three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left against Ohio State on Saturday afternoon sent the Buckeyes into a weeklong break from game action with an 8-5 record in the Big Ten, squarely packed into the logjam in the conference behind frontrunner Wisconsin. Thad Matta's squad now has just five regular season games remaining, and largely remains an enigma.
Despite the loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes are in the midst of playing their best basketball of the season. The team has won five of its last seven, with its two losses coming by just a combined five points. Several players have stepped up during that string, and at times Ohio State has looked to be rounding into form for the stretch run.
The Buckeyes won't take the floor until next Sunday when they travel to Ann Arbor to take on arch-rival Michigan. With its postseason fate still very much up in the air, how the team responds over the final handful of games will be chiefly important. Positioning for the Big Ten tournament and beyond are up for grabs. Can Ohio State seize the opportunity over the next three weeks?
Looking at the various metrics, Ohio State still appears to be an NCAA tournament team, but a slide to end the year could change that. On the other hand, a strong finish and good showing in the Big Ten tourney would provide a significant boost to the team's positioning.
As of this writing, the Buckeyes are overwhelmingly projected to be a 7-seed when March Madness rolls around. If such a scenario were to play out, that would mean a potential second round matchup with its region's No. 2 seed, and a tough road to the Sweet 16.
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The rankings tell a different story than the Bracketology, though. Both KenPom and ESPN's Basketball Power Index have Ohio State firmly among the top 15 teams in the country. Based upon those metrics, a quality finish to the season could vault the Buckeyes into a top-4 seeding on Selection Sunday.
Throughout the season, the Buckeyes have ebbed and flowed in rhythm to the performance of freshman D'Angelo Russell. The Louisville native has played beyond his years, particularly in Big Ten play, and is the runaway favorite to be named the conference's top newcomer.
Ohio State will likely only go as far as Russell takes them this year, which is a scary proposition after the freshman has struggled in the past two games. Last Wednesday's 20-point victory at home over Penn State helped soothe the fact that Russell shot just 4-13 from the floor, and only 1-5 from beyond the arc. While he finished with 17 points thanks to a 10-12 night at the free throw line, adding 6 rebounds and 7 assists, Russell was largely bottled up by the Nittany Lions.
The same proved true on Saturday. The Spartans threw a variety of different defenders at Russell, and he never really found his rhythm. Again going 4-13 from the field, and making just 2 of his 7 three-point attempts, Russell put up his second-lowest scoring output of the season with 10 points.
"I thought we did a very good job on Russell," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "He's maybe the best player in this league. He's so hard to guard."
Is this the freshman wall? Or is it just a matter of a player drawing the undivided attention of his opponents and meeting with some unfriendly rims? Fans of the scarlet and grey will find out against the Wolverines, and are hopeful that the week off will allow Russell to come back fresh for the stretch run.
Adjusting the Rotation
After falling to 3-3 in Big Ten play following a 76-67 loss at Iowa a month ago, Matta inserted freshman Jae'Sean Tate and grad student transfer Anthony Lee into the starting lineup in the hopes of seeing better energy out of the gate at the start of games. That has turned out to mostly be the case.
However, the suspension of sophomore Marc Loving and an injury to Lee have forced Ohio State to juggle its rotation the past four games. The results of that flux have generally been positive, as several players have stepped up for the Buckeyes.
Against Michigan State, senior Shannon Scott showed more aggressiveness on the offensive side of the ball, picking up the slack for the struggling Russell. Scott finished with a team-high 15 points, adding 5 boards, 5 assists, and 2 steals.
Senior Sam Thompson put up a career-high 22 points in the win against Penn State, knocking down jumpers and free throws in addition to his usual highlight reel dunks.
"He puts a lot of time in," Matta said after Wednesday's game. "We've kind of been saying, if we can get him making some shots, it makes us a lot more effective. Everybody fears him running to the rim. Being able to step out and make a shot definitely helps open things up for us."
Freshman Keita Bates-Diop has also stepped up for the Buckeyes, and showed flashes of his 4-star potential. The Normal, Illinois native averaged 10.5 points and 8 rebounds while seeing increased playing time in the two wins preceding the trip to East Lansing, where he only saw five minutes of action.
"I saw an opportunity with Marc out to step up," Bates-Diop said on Friday. "Having Marc back makes us a deeper team."
Loving played only five minutes against the Spartans, and did not attempt a shot in his first game back from suspension. Despite Bates-Diop's play in his absence, the former Mr. Basketball in the state of Ohio is integral to the Buckeyes' postseason hopes, and must find a way to get back into the swing of things.
"Marc definitely makes us a better team when he is out there playing," Matta said in the run-up to Saturday's game.
A Favorable Schedule
Over the final five games of the regular season, Ohio State plays three in Columbus. Three of the five will also be against teams that currently have losing records in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes must handle business in their contests with Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State.
One of the two games remaining against teams better than .500 will be a revenge game against Purdue that will likely have implications for conference tourney seeding. The Buckeyes lost by just two to the Boilers in their trip to West Lafayette. The other game is a matchup with the Badgers at Value City Arena on senior day.
"We know there's going to be some close games, we know we're going to come out on top, we know we're going to lose some," Thompson said after the game on Saturday. "It's our job to work as hard and play as hard throughout the game to put us in the position to win those games. We've been in a position to win but we haven't gotten it done. But we gotta keep going."
Aside from the Wisconsin game, Ohio State should be favored in each matchup the rest of the way. Finishing the regular season with five or six conference losses would put the team on the bubble for a double bye in the Big Ten tournament, where Matta's teams have historically been great.
What Does It Mean?
If Ohio State has been anything this season, it's inconsistent. Game to game, one has no way of predicting how the team will perform. While the Buckeyes have at times looked as if they were finding their stride, there is still no certainty about how good this squad really is. With the season winding down, it's time for Ohio State to find out.