After a back-and-forth first half, the Buckeyes pulled away from Minnesota in the second before a late rally tightened things at the end. OSU escaped with a 79-73 victory in what seemed like a very flat game on both sides. I expected a bit more emotion from both teams. Ohio State might be a NCAA lock, but seeding is still on the line. On the other side, the NIT was not guaranteed for the Gophers going into the night, but a win here would've almost certainly sealed it and a run to the finals could have put them on the NCAA bubble at least.
What We Learned:
Marc Loving has finally turned it around
Since his early February suspension Marc Loving had made four total field goals. Tonight he finished with five on eight attempts. He totaled 12 points, twice his previous high since returning to the OSU lineup. In addition to his vast improvement in offensive efficiency, Loving stepped it up on defense and made a few key plays down the stretch. If Loving can get back to where he was earlier in the year, this Ohio State team becomes much more dangerous heading into the big dance.
D'Angelo Russell isn't easily deterred
Despite a cold shooting first half and being forced to sit with a minor thumb injury, the fabulous frosh was still able to put up 23 points and lead his team to a victory. The Buckeyes seemed lost during the short period of time their young leader was on the bench being attended to, and even when he returned the disjointed play continued, resulting in a 35-35 tie at the half. In the second half, Russell returned to his normal self and the whole team started to play better around him. Very few freshman have ever had that profound of an impact on a team, but this kid has proven time and time again that he is special.
Richard Pitino will be feeling the heat next year
The NIT championship was nice, but this team was expected to do better this year. They did worse, and that doesn't bode well for a coach who inherited a team that hadn't had a losing record under Tubby Smith. Minnesota didn't seem like a team fighting for its life tonight, they made up ground late in the game, but after a season like this you'd expect them to putting it all on the line in their last shot at the NCAA Tournament. This team might even miss the NIT now. The Gophers will have a decent recruiting class coming in next year, but they lose four scholarship seniors including Maurice Walker, Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins. Making the tourney will be a tough task for Pitino, especially if his job is on the line.
Thad Matta might be growing a beard
Take a look at the heading photo, that is some clear growth from a normally clean-shaven coach. Is it a playoff beard? Or did he just forget his razor back in Columbus? Hopefully we'll know more after tomorrow night's game.
A missed opportunity for Pitino and Minnesota, this was a vulnerable Buckeye squad that lost their Wooden candidate for an important stretch early in the game. The Gophers needed to take advantage and force the issue when they had the chance. Instead, they let Russell get back into the flow of the game in the second half and possibly end their season. Ohio State could afford to play a little tentative in spots, but Minnesota couldn't and it lost them the game.