March Madness came early for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Their loss to the 10th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers certainly felt like a tournament game.
It also exposed a nagging concern as the calendar turns to March, the inability to cool the hot hand.
On February 12th, Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin scored 21 of 27 points in the second half to help Wisconsin rally from 15 points down to end the Buckeyes chances of an undefeated season. Taylor hit open shot after open shot as the Badgers systematically dismantled the Buckeyes.
Conventional wisdom called it a “good loss." It would teach them a valuable lesson prior to the tournament.
Sunday proved they may need a refresher course.
Yes, the Buckeyes had an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers, including nine in the second half alone. “We need to execute better on offense,” said starting guard Jon Diebler. “We had some turnovers that were self-imposed.”
Yes, the Buckeyes shot a frightening 6 for 22 in the second half.
But for everything the Buckeyes did wrong, this game was decided by one player—and Ohio State’s inability to stop him.
E’Twaun Moore scored a career-high 38 points, or exactly half of Purdue’s total in the 76-63 win. The 6’4″ senior rebounded from his 4-13 in Purdue’s blowout loss in Columbus by pouring in 13 of 18 shots to help the Boilermakers shoot 51 percent from the field.
More importantly, Moore was the player who consistently put the dagger into the Buckeyes, never allowing them to sustain momentum.
The Buckeyes out-rebounded Purdue 29-27. They had four players in double figures. They shot 11 more free throws. They nearly overcame a horrible game from David Lighty (2-9 from the field, 5-10 from the line).
Still, the Buckeyes didn’t seem to have an answer for Moore who single-handedly led the Boilermakers to the victory.
“We’ve got to continue to keep our focus,” said Ohio State coach Thad Motta after the loss. “Our guys know we have to play better basketball and we have to get them ready to do that.”
During the regular season, you can dust yourself off from these losses. Ohio State has no reason to panic. This is a good team that can go deep in the tournament.
But the NCAA tournament is not a best-of-five or best-of-seven series that rewards the better team.
What makes the NCAA tournament so compelling is the one-and-done format that allows one player to put a team on his back, and end another team’s great season.
As Jared Sullinger said after the Wisconsin loss, “Rankings don’t matter…At the end of the day, you want to be the last team standing.”
In order to do that, Ohio State will have to figure out how to respond as a team when one player is determined to take away their dream.
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