If it seems like a rather strange time to be breaking down Ohio State’s chances at a return trip to the Final Four, that’s because it is. After all, the Buckeyes are coming off of two straight losses to the types of high-caliber teams that they would probably have to beat in the later tournament rounds.
What’s more, Thad Matta’s team is a mere 1-6 against Top 25 opponents at the time of the game. It appears to the outside observer that the Scarlet and Gray are talented enough to take care of business against the teams that should be beaten but not quite special enough to hang with the country’s best.
The offense is struggling mightily, and the fans are divided on a number of critical issues, including playing time and which lineup combinations should be used more or less frequently.
Struggles against elite competition and a group still searching for an offensive identity beyond "give the ball to Deshaun Thomas and get out of the way" is usually not the formula for a Final Four appearance. You wouldn’t be that far off if you declared the Buckeyes' chances seemingly nonexistent at this point.
Of course, if this article was written on February 30, 2012, the opening few paragraphs would have been very similar.
Ohio State was in somewhat of a tailspin, and the Big Ten title that seemed to be theirs for the taking at one time was in jeopardy. The Buckeyes were in the midst of a six-game stretch that included a road loss to archrival Michigan and home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin. Jared Sullinger then had to rescue his team with a buzzer-beating shot against lowly Northwestern.
With a game at Michigan State and then the treacherous Big Ten tournament awaiting, it looked like Matta’s bunch was going to back into the NCAA tournament.
Then William Buford hit a game-winner to stun the Spartans, and the team enacted some revenge on the Wolverines in a dominating fashion at the conference tournament. Even a hard-fought loss to Michigan State in the conference championship didn’t sour the suddenly positive-again vibes.
There were a number of key pieces on last season’s team, and the group as a whole rallied around them all the way to a Final Four berth. The squad faced a crisis of confidence point and didn’t back down.
This year’s version of the Buckeye hoopsters is at a similar crossroads.
There are certainly some talented pieces in place with Aaron Craft’s relentless defense and leadership, Deshaun Thomas’ ability to put it in the basket from nearly anywhere on the floor and the potential emergence of LaQuinton Ross as a second scoring option, but the losses and frustration have piled up.
(Let’s not get too carried away about the two-game streak of Ross' success, but it may be all right to at least start looking at early reservations for a bandwagon that could fill up quickly if it continues.)
So where does this team go over the course of the next month or two?
Either it continues to run in place and knock off the Purdues and Iowas of the Big Ten while losing to the Michigan States and Indianas or it bears down and turns the season around, a la last year.
One thing Ohio State, and every other team in the Big Ten, has going in its favor come March is the arduous road that is the Big Ten. No other conference will send its teams to the NCAA tournament more battle tested and prepared for what the month of March brings.
Perhaps the most important thing in the Buckeyes' quest to return to the Final Four will not be an internal shift of momentum or the difficulty of the Big Ten. It could very well be the external factor that is Selection Sunday.
In this topsy-turvy college basketball season that has seen the nation’s No. 1 team fall in five consecutive weeks and Top 10 teams drop like flies, anything can happen. The difference between success and failure in the NCAA tournament often comes down to matchups alone.
Matta’s 2010-11 team was the best he had during his tenure in Columbus that didn’t feature Greg Oden or Mike Conley Jr. That team earned the No. 1 overall ranking going into the tournament only to be rewarded with a nearly impossible bracket that included the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Syracuse.
An early exit in the Sweet 16 was the result.
However, last season’s Ohio State squad, which was not as strong as the year before, was presented with a much clearer path to the Final Four that included games against in-state Cincinnati and Fab Melo-less Syracuse.
In a one-and-done tournament, the most talented team often doesn’t take home the ultimate prize. There are 15 to 20 teams in college basketball this year that could beat almost anyone on any given night. Selection Sunday will be as important as ever.
Just look at Joe Lunardi’s bracketology from this week. Ohio State is the No. 3 seed in the West region and would likely face Gonzaga and Arizona if it was to make a Final Four. Both teams are talented, but the Buckeyes certainly have enough to beat either one (Illinois from the Big Ten handled the Zags on the road, and the Wildcats have looked vulnerable in Pac-12 play).
That bracket was admittedly done before the Buckeyes lost to Indiana Sunday, meaning the Buckeyes' seeding will take a hit, but it serves as an illustration of how important matchups will be in March.
As for the Buckeyes' chances at April? They may not be great, but let's wait until the bracket comes out before we write them off just yet.