The Buckeyes' past two games have left Ohio State basketball fans confused.
On Sunday they were forced to suffer a 71-49 beatdown at the hands of the hated Wisconsin Badgers, but Wednesday night brought some respite in the form of a 71-45 victory over Minnesota. To the delight of many, crowd favorite Amedeo Della Valle even got in on the scoring action.
It was a perfect metaphor for this inconsistent yet dangerous basketball squad.
There is an enticing amount of talent in coach Thad Matta’s eight-man rotation, but they haven’t found a way to put it together against elite competition. Any given game could result in a dominating win or blowout loss.
With only four regular season contests remaining, it is difficult to determine what would be considered a successful season for the Buckeyes.
For context, the preseason expectations were as high as ever when Ohio State ranked fourth in the AP Top 25 poll.
The Scarlet and Gray were fresh off a Big Ten championship and Final Four trip. Plus, core players Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. returned. There was even an enticing group of young sophomores in Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams to serve as the supporting cast.
The fact that the much-anticipated opening showdown against Marquette—supposed to take place on an aircraft carrier—got rained out should serve as an omen for what seems to be lofty expectations.
The season has fallen off the rails for the Buckeyes, thanks to a handful of struggles.
They have yet to establish a reliable second scorer behind Thomas, despite the fact that it has been discussed ad nauseam. The lack of a strong interior presence is still a concern, which has led to poor rebounding and a lack of production from the center position, and some of the sophomores (Ross and Williams in particular) haven’t lived up to their billing.
The end result is an ugly 1-7 record against teams that were ranked at time of the game. Ohio State’s only key victories (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, if you want to call that key) have come from the comforts of home.
One of the nation’s largest fanbases is understandably frustrated in the light of the preseason ranking and their desire for the program to be considered among the upper echelon of the sport.
However, the book isn’t completely written on the season just yet.
There was plenty of handwringing among Buckeye Nation this time last year after losing three of five games. It appeared as if the team was in a complete nosedive after a particularly difficult loss to Wisconsin (sound familiar?).
Not to rely too much on parallels, but that campaign turned around near the end of the year with a big victory over the Michigan State Spartans—the same group the Buckeyes next welcome to Columbus.
When this season’s Ohio State team digs in, plays tenacious defense and Thomas’ shot is falling, it is capable of beating nearly any team in the country.
You don’t walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium and dominate for 35 minutes if you are a bad basketball squad.
Nevertheless, given the struggles against elite competition and the inconsistency of a number of players, the Final Four or bust preseason expectations have to be tempered.
A successful season at this point would be a 3-1 finish—which is very optimistic with MSU, Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois on the docket—and an appearance in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
That finishing effort would likely be good enough to earn Matta’s bunch a No. 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA tournament considering the strength of schedule boost it would provide.
A trip to the Sweet 16 would be absolutely required with that seeding to be considered a success and, depending on the bracket matchups, more could be expected.
Again, this is an optimistic projection by its nature. Of course, whether you would consider a Big Ten semifinal appearance and Sweet 16 trip a success or not, considering the lofty preseason ranking and last year's success, is up for debate.
Just know that the sky hasn’t fallen just yet.
Whether the Buckeyes prevent it from doing so will depend on March, as it always does.
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