The chances of Thad Matta's group hearing their names called on Selection Sunday were already very slim heading into the week, but at least there was some sliver of hope. They had opportunities to improve their rather weak resume with Michigan State and Iowa headed to Columbus before they finished the season with a return to East Lansing and the Big Ten Tournament. They were on a four-game winning streak, including a relatively easy win over rival Michigan and a monumental overtime victory at Nebraska last week.
Then this past Tuesday happened.
This tweet from Ohio State Associate AD Dan Wallenberg dropped just 30 minutes before the Buckeyes' biggest game of the year against the Spartans.
Jae'Sean Tate, a sophomore with @OhioStateHoops will miss the remainder of the year with a shoulder injury. He will have surgery Friday.— Dan Wallenberg (@OSUADAthComm) February 24, 2016
Tate was third on the team in scoring, second in rebounding, and he started all 28 games that he played in. Along with Trevor Thompson, Tate was the only Buckeye that could consistently score down low in half-court settings. He was the loudest player on a team that often appears to lack much life and that translated with his consistent hustle and effort.
He's exactly the type of player you want on the floor as a coach when you need to grind out a couple of wins over better, more experienced opponents in a do-or-die situation. Which was exactly the situation Matta and Ohio State were facing heading towards March. Instead of inserting Tate into the starting lineup for the 29th time on Tuesday, Matta was forced to give freshman Mickey Mitchell the nod against the national title contender Michigan State Spartans. Mitchell's next point will be his first since January 28th.
Despite being without one of their best players, the Buckeyes were within striking distance of the Spartans for about 27 minutes before Michigan State soundly put the game away, ultimately winning the game 81-62. Keita Bates-Diop did his best to make up for the loss of Tate's rebounding, but his interior scoring was certainly missed.
Would Tate's presence have made a difference in the winner and loser on Tuesday night? 19 points is a lot to overcome, but it's impossible to ever really know. And Ohio State's reality at this point is that they'll have to figure out how to win without him in a hurry.
For one, they'll have to be better down the stretch defending the three-pointer. Michigan State scored more than half of their points from the outside, going 14-22 from beyond the arc. Obviously the Buckeyes have to face the Spartans again in the season finale and sharp-shooting Iowa is coming to town over the weekend.
While they held it together on the boards against a Michigan State team that rebounds as well as anyone in the country, Ohio State was a mediocre rebounding team pre-Tate injury. Bates-Diop can't do it alone and Trevor Thompson can't have two rebounds in 20 minutes like he did against the Spartans.
Finally, the Buckeyes will need a leader to step up down the stretch. The obvious candidate would be Marc Loving, the elder statesman on an extremely youthful squad. Being vocal and playing with a high level of outward passion haven't been two things one would often associate with Loving through the first three years of his career, but on a team without a senior, he'll need to at least fake it for a few games.