Ohio State: Epitome of a Bubble Team

Michael RiceCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2008

Ohio State's basketball season has followed the proverbial roller coaster ride.

It all started with last year's tremendous run to the national championship, capped off with a loss to Florida and the subsequent announcement that the Buckeyes would lose all three of their phenomenal freshmen from last season to the NBA—Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook—along with senior leaders Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris.

Yet coach Thad Matta led his team into the season with a great deal of promise.  The Buckeyes introduced a talented group of freshmen, highlighted by athletic seven-footer Kosta Koufos, and sweet shooting guard/forward John Diebler.

Fans had reason to believe the 2007-2008 campaign would be strong again for Ohio State.

Any overly optimistic fans were quickly subdued, however, as a preseason loss to Findlay—yes, I-AA Findlay— revealed all was not right in Buckeye-land.  The team would have to take time to come together.  This inauspicious start did not continue into the early part of the season, with a few in-game lapses aside, but rather Ohio State's inconsistencies would rear their collective head later in the season.

In fact, the early returns from the regular season were resoundingly positive.  A run to the preseason NIT finals, and a sprint to a 12-3 start had everything coming up roses.  After all, their three losses came against No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 16 Butler, and the team collected wins against a ranked Syracuse squad, and a recent source of frustration, Florida (finally).  The Findlay preseason fiasco was fading from memory.

But only the truly objective observer could see the thorny picture around the early success.  Ohio State led North Carolina and Butler at the half, and was right there with A&M.  In each of those games, they sustained several-minute scoring droughts that crippled their chances.  Beyond that, the Buckeyes' inconsistencies were symptomatic of a larger problem.

Jamar Butler has been the team's leader, their go-to senior, and when he was not performing the team struggled mightily.

Ohio State's freshmen—those supposed phenoms—were not meeting expectations.  That became clear as the season progressed.  The only freshman to exceed expectations thus far is Evan Turner (8.2 ppg, 4.2, rpg, 2.5 apg), who has emerged over the course of the year to contribute solid minutes.

Koufos still needs to improve his inside game, which has been tentative at times.  It's March now, and the team is still waiting for Diebler's killer jump shot to drop with any kind of regularity.

After their solid start, the Buckeyes dropped three in a row on the road.  By March 1, they found themselves in a major slump.

Their youth and lack of depth was showing; Ohio State was 5-9 between Dec. 1 and March 1, with those wins coming against Illinois, Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan, and Northwestern—a veritable who's who of Big Ten ineptitude.  Not to mention, a couple of those teams picked up wins against Ohio State over that same stretch.

There they stood; 17-12, with a season fading fast.  But the beauty of college basketball is that it is never over until the conference tournaments have played out.

There was hope.

The Buckeyes are drawing on that hope to fuel the final stretch of their season.  Picking up victories over ranked opponents Purdue and Michigan State, albeit at home, has reinvigorated ambitions.  The team has its sights once again set on the NCAA Tournament.

Today, Ohio State finds itself alive, but firmly on the bubble with work left to do.  Their resume tells the story: a 19-12 record (10-8 in conference), an RPI of 50 and a strength of schedule rated 18th in the country.

Ohio State versus Michigan State, take two, will happen this Friday in the Big Ten conference tournament quarterfinals.  The consensus among pundits and bracketologists alike is the Buckeyes must win that game, and at least put in a solid effort in the semis (likely against Wisconsin) to put themselves in decent position to be "dancing" come Sunday.

I'll go so far as to say Friday's showdown against the Spartans in Indianapolis—yes, one game—will determine the relative success or failure of the Buckeyes' season.

If Ohio State does not make the NCAA Tournament, it will be a colossal disappointment.  But if they do—well, hope marches on.