The Ohio State Buckeyes are a young basketball team who has won a lot of Big Ten basketball games this season, but unfortunately very few of those wins came against top competition. Because of this, the Buckeyes find themselves in an unprecedented situation where they will potentially need a total of at least 14 wins over Big Ten competition to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament.
Since Thad Matta took over as head coach at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have reached the Big Ten Tournament title game seven times in eleven seasons, truly an impressive mark. The Buckeyes won the championship four of those seven times. They will likely need to make a run to their 12th Big Ten championship appearance, otherwise the Buckeyes will miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
The road to Sunday for Ohio State is not an easy one and they will have to do it without the services of sophomore Jae'Sean Tate, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in late February. Without Tate, let's examine what their road map for the weekend looks like.
Thursday vs. #10 Penn State
The Buckeyes will start off the tournament with a rematch of the 2011 Big Ten Tournament championship game, in which the Jared Sullinger-led Buckeyes defeated Penn State 71-60. Ohio State also defeated Penn State 66-46 on January 26th in the only meeting between the two teams this season.
Despite the relatively easy victory for the Buckeyes in January, this game could prove to be closely fought and entertaining. Penn State has been playing better basketball down the stretch and secured upset victories over Indiana and Iowa in February. The Nittany Lions are not new to playing the role of spoiler in the Big Ten Tournament, as last year they managed to upset Iowa and took Purdue to the wire before finally bowing out.
Penn State has plenty to play for as well with hopes of earning a NIT berth so the Buckeyes will have to earn their way to Friday against a motivated opponent. Thad Matta's team has done a good job of beating the teams they "should" beat in Big Ten play this year so they will need that to continue against a scrappy Lions squad.
With a Win, Friday vs. #2 Michigan State
You do not want your NCAA tournament chances to require a victory over a white-hot opponent, but Ohio State will need to defeat the Spartans of Michigan State to get back into the tournament conversation. The Buckeyes and Spartans are well acquainted right now as the two teams have faced off twice in the past two weeks. Neither matchup went well for Ohio State, as the Spartans won by 19 in Columbus and then won by 15 in East Lansing.
Crazier things have happened in the Big Ten Tournament, but the chips are stacked against the Buckeyes in this one. A common college basketball axiom is that it is difficult to beat a team three times in one season, but the Spartans have looked unstoppable in recent weeks.
If the Buckeyes play excellent basketball and secure the upset, that could at least put them in the range of making the tournament. Unfortunately for Ohio State, top seeds in mid-major conference tournaments have already lost and will take away a couple of at-large bids, which means that beating Michigan State may not be enough for the Buckeyes.
Saturday and Sunday Outlook
If Thad Matta's team survives to Saturday, they could be taking on either Maryland or Wisconsin, which would be another chance to impress the tournament committee. If Nebraska made a run and was the Saturday opponent, that would not be a resume-boosting win for the Buckeyes but that would increase the likelihood of OSU making the Big Ten title game and put the Buckeyes within reach of the Big Ten's automatic bid.
If the storybook run continues to Sunday, the likely opponent in the Big Ten Championship game would be Indiana, Purdue, or Iowa. However it all goes down, the Buckeyes will need at least two wins over teams in the top half of the conference to feel good about making the NCAA tourney.
Thad Matta has done a great job getting his young team to play solid basketball after a slow start to the season that featured home losses to Louisiana Tech and Texas-Arlington. Matta remains an underrated coach; earlier this season some suggested Ohio State should consider making a coaching change and those suggestions look laughable at this point. I would argue that his team is playing well enough to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament but they just don't have the resume to reflect that.
To really drive home the point that their Big Ten record is somewhat misleading, we'll finish with a spreadsheet of Ohio State's wins and losses in Big Ten play and the KenPom rankings of their conference opponents. They will have a chance to fix their abysmal record against the top Big Ten teams this weekend but it will be an uphill battle.