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Ohio State 2016-17 Preview: Breaking down the schedule

It’s never an easy road in the Big 10, but man Ohio State got the short end of the stick when it comes to scheduling.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Ohio State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Opinions on the Ohio State Buckeyes vary greatly depending on who you ask. The Sporting News projected Ohio State to finish 10th in the 14-team Big Ten this basketball season. On the other end of the spectrum, Lindy’s Sports has the Buckeyes as the fourth-best team in the deep conference. The truth probably falls somewhere in between. Last year, they were smack dab in the middle, finishing seventh with a record of 11-7 in-conference.

Despite the average season, there is reason to believe an improvement could be pending, a la Lindy’s Sports’ prediction. That is because Ohio State returns what is essentially its entire rotation from a year ago. The team’s top six scorers from 2015-16 are all back. That includes Jae’Sean Tate, who went down last season with a shoulder injury. The team was 18-10 with Tate and just 3-4 without him, though the schedule was partially responsible for the slip as well. OSU was forced to play Michigan State three times in the span of three weeks, losing all three times.

Tate and company are ready to build and improve upon last season’s outcome, but they will not be alone. Added to the mix are a couple of four-star high school recruits, assuming they can find playing time in the depth that coach Thad Matta will have at his disposal.

The Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them early this regular season with a treacherous non-conference schedule that includes the likes of Connecticut, Virginia, and UCLA. But that slate should help prepare them for an unending and often unforgiving trip through the Big Ten. Things start with a road game at Illinois and only get more difficult from there.

By most estimations, the top of the Big Ten will belong to Wisconsin and Michigan State in some order by season’s end. Though no guarantee, those are likely the best the conference has to offer and two teams that will be in the national discussion all year as well. For Ohio State, this is nothing but bad news. In the 18-game conference slate, Big Ten teams play just five of their peers in home-and-home, two-game series. It just so happens that OSU faces both Wisconsin and Michigan State twice this year. It is pretty brutal scheduling luck for a team trying to rebound back into the top third of the conference.

There is some solace in the fact that the Buckeyes also get Minnesota and Nebraska twice. Most expert projections have both of those teams finishing in the bottom three of the league. Yet the Buckeyes will also see Maryland twice; a team that won 27 games last year even though its best player wasn’t really all that good. Add in a road game at Michigan, and Ohio State seemed to get the short end of the scheduling stick this year. There is no way to make a balanced schedule in such a deep conference. That would require playing upwards of 26 conference games; it’s impossible. Some years, things look tough. This is one of those years for OSU.

That is why it will help immensely to have such extensive experience return on the roster, as well as the coaching staff. Matta will demand improvements from a deep bunch. Senior Marc Loving has taken huge strides each year he’s been at Ohio State. One more, assuming he wrangles in his field-goal percentage, could place him in the upper echelon of the conference. The same goes for junior Keita Bates-Diop, who was unrecognizable last year from the bit-part bench player of 2014-15. An emotional improvement from JaQuan Lyle could be another game-changer that would have Ohio State become an opponent everyone fears, though it still might not be enough to overcome the Big Ten circuit.