Tuesday's 64-58 victory over Illinois, however, began a stretch of eight games against seven teams that are a combined 8-25 in the Big Ten. That will carry Ohio State to the end of February, when only five games remain, and its NCAA Tournament chances will be much clearer.
One good sign was the response Jamar Butler received after he asked for more help. Butler was the lone warrior carrying the Buckeyes through much of the season, but after he again received little assistance in the loss at Michigan State, his teammates responded at Tennessee. Othello Hunter (17 points, 14 rebounds) and Evan Turner (21 points, 10 rebounds) turned in big games against the Vols. It was David Lighty's turn against the Illini after he struggled miserably in the previous three games.
The next step is adding depth off the bench. The present rotation is about seven players deep, which creates tired legs at the end of games. Against the Vols, the bench was outscored 26-0.
With Minnesota coming to town on Saturday, this is a great opportunity for the Buckeyes to put to use the lessons they learned from staying close against the top competition. These are the games they must win to make March mean something.
OHIO STATE 64, ILLINOIS 58: The Buckeyes squandered a comfortable 15-point lead with 6:30 to play, but David Lighty sealed the win with a huge offensive rebound Tuesday. With the lead down to three and 30 seconds remaining, Lighty soared between two Illinois players to grab the rebound off a missed free throw by Kosta Koufos.
Koufos had missed both free throws, but Lighty went to the line following his big rebound and made them both, allowing Ohio State to move to 13-6 overall, 4-2 in the Big Ten. Lighty finished with a team-high 16 points, while freshman Evan Turner had another big game with 14 points and Koufos added 12 despite the critical misses in the final minute.
The young Buckeyes dropped games at Purdue, Michigan State and Tennessee to fall to 12-6 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. However, a team that returned only four players and one starter from last year's national runner-up felt it matured during the trip.
"The big thing I want our guys thinking is what we have to do to win and obviously playing with an element of toughness, intelligence and passion. We had that for a certain stretch but not long enough," coach Thad Matta said after the 74-69 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 19. "We're showing signs, but the biggest thing is being consistent for 40 minutes."
Nevertheless, Ohio State felt good about the way it played in hostile territory in Knoxville. Tennessee was particularly fired up to play the Buckeyes after blowing a big halftime lead and losing in the Elite Eight in last year's NCAA Tournament.
"We played hard in this game and some of other losses this season wouldn't have happened if we had played like this," freshman forward Evan Turner said. "We can be a very good team if we play all the time, and I think we're starting to learn that."
IN FOCUS: Ohio State will need the experience of G Jamar Butler, the only returning starter from last year's title-game participant, when it faces a Minnesota defense that applies constant pressure and forced turnovers in bunches. The Buckeyes have won 10 of their last 13 games against the Golden Gophers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm more of a European-style big man in that I'm more comfortable facing the basket. But the Ohio State Buckeyes need a center and I feel like I'm making that transition to playing with my back to the basket." — C Kosta Koufos, who is averaging 13.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in his freshman season.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Evan Turner, F Othello Hunter, C Kosta Koufos, G Jamar Butler, G David Lighty. Key Subs — G Jon Diebler, F Matt Terwilliger.
Purdue 75, Ohio State 68
Michigan State 66, Ohio State 60
Tennessee 74, Ohio State 69
Ohio State 64, Illinois 58
vs. Minnesota, Saturday, Jan. 26
at Penn State, Tuesday, Jan. 29
at Iowa, Saturday, Feb. 2