It has been a roller coaster of a 2013-14 season for the Ohio State men's basketball team, but with the Big Ten tournament upon us, the slate is officially wiped clean.
From here on out, the Buckeyes will be playing in a win-or-go-home scenario, be it in Indianapolis for the conference tournament or the Big Dance itself the following week.
If they win in the postseason, those head-scratching losses to Penn State will mean absolutely nothing. On the flip side, early exits would more than negate impressive victories at Wisconsin, at Iowa and over Michigan State.
Thad Matta is no stranger to success in Indianapolis, as the Buckeyes have captured three of the past four Big Ten tournament crowns, including the one from last year.
How far will Ohio State get in Indianapolis?
What’s more, Ohio State should have a degree of confidence as the No. 5 seed heading into Thursday’s tilt with No. 12 Purdue, and not only because the scarlet and gray are 2-0 against the Boilermakers this year.
The Buckeyes edged out Michigan State in a hard-fought two-point victory to close the regular season, capitalizing on a strong defense that held the Spartans scoreless for the final 4:30.
It was only fitting that Aaron Craft made the most important defensive play of the game on his senior day by lunging in front of Adreian Payne and grabbing the critical loose ball on the floor with less than a minute left.
Even in defeat, Tom Izzo complemented Craft in his postgame press conference, via Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors:
Izzo on Craft: "He's all that’s right about college basketball. He's a great kid. It was an honor to coach against him for four years."— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) March 9, 2014
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, let’s look ahead to some Ohio State-oriented predictions for the Big Ten tournament.
Defense Will Carry the Way
It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say defense will be important in Indianapolis, but the only way the Buckeyes can make a deep run is by relying on their calling card.
Ken Pomeroy ranks Ohio State second in the country in his pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings as of Tuesday, behind only Arizona.
Craft and company proved against the Spartans that they can rack up impressive victories behind strong defensive showings, and they will do just that in the Big Ten tournament.
Ohio State’s offense ranks an abysmal 120th in Pomeroy’s same ratings, so coming up with critical stops will be more important during inevitable scoring droughts.
The Bench Will Provide a Spark
The best-case scenario for the Buckeyes in Indianapolis would also mean playing four games in four days the week before the NCAA tournament starts.
The only way Ohio State can expect to go far in the conference tournament and still have hope in the Big Dance is by receiving contributions from the bench. Role players Trey McDonald, Marc Loving, Shannon Scott and even Amedeo Della Valle need to make an impact in the postseason.
Scott isn’t exactly an offensive force, but when he is at his best, he is lethal on defense. He also uses his speed to get out in transition, which needs to happen in Indianapolis because easy baskets are critical for a middling Ohio State offense.
Loving has the potential to be a game-changing scorer when he is at his best, which hasn’t happened as often as Buckeye fans were hoping for this year, and at some point Matta will rely on McDonald because Amir Williams will probably pick up two fouls getting off the bus.
The thought here is that the bench answers the bell, especially in the early rounds.
The way this Ohio State season has gone, it shouldn’t really be considered a surprise if the Buckeyes lose in the first round to Purdue or go on to win the entire thing.
The prediction here is that Matta will lead his team to a fairly straightforward victory over the struggling Boilermakers and then enact some revenge on Nebraska, which beat the Buckeyes in the last meeting.
While the Cornhuskers do have that home victory over Ohio State, it’s difficult to forget the 31-point beatdown the Buckeyes handed Nebraska in their first meeting on Jan. 4.
The Cornhuskers are very dangerous at home, but vulnerable away from Lincoln. Ohio State will take advantage.
The scarlet and gray will then catch something of a break when Indiana upsets No. 1 seed Michigan in front of a partial crowd in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers just lost a heartbreaker in Ann Arbor Saturday and already beat the Wolverines once in Assembly Hall.
While the Buckeyes also lost to the Hoosiers in Bloomington, they will rally behind their newfound momentum and a solid offensive showing against Indiana’s somewhat middle-of-the-road defense to advance to the Big Ten tournament final.
It is in that championship game where fatigue will start to set in.
It will be the fourth game in as many days for the Buckeyes, which is a lot to ask against any competition, let alone the physical and grueling Big Ten.
Whichever team emerges from the other side of the bracket (the guess here is that it is Wisconsin, but Michigan State and Iowa are certainly possibilities) will win by eight-to-10 points against a tired Buckeye team. Ohio State’s already questionable jump shooting will look even worse with fatigued legs, stifling the offense even more.
Still, a run all the way to the Big Ten final would be impressive for this Ohio State squad considering how up-and-down the season has been.
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