The Ohio State men's basketball team saw its Big Ten tournament run come to a close with a 72-69 defeat at the hands of Michigan. With the Buckeyes headed home and looking toward Selection Sunday, BuckeyeSports.com's Ben Axelrod provides his thoughts on Ohio State's conference tournament showing and looks forward to the Big Dance.
Some final thoughts from Ohio State's 72-69 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals just as soon as I figure out how I'm getting home.
"Things aren't going to always go our way. Especially when you get in the tournament, you never know. I love the way that our team was able to fight and stick together in tough times. Hopefully that helps us out." - Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft
After 34 games, I still don't know what to make of this Ohio State team, but I don't have a good feeling about its chances in the NCAA Tournament. Especially for a team likely to be a five-seed -- or lower -- it's nearly impossible to get out of the first weekend without a close game, and it's going to be hard for OSU to win a close game with the way that its been shooting free throws. The Buckeyes were 8-of-12 from the charity stripe on Saturday, but three crucial misses down the stretch proved to be the difference against the Wolverines. Craft missed a pair and LaQuinton Ross split a pair with the game on the line and similar inconsistencies could ultimately cost Ohio State its season as soon as next weekend.
The good news for the Buckeyes on Saturday was that even when they fell behind 16 points in the first half, I still felt like they were going to come back. And ultimately, I was vindicated. If we learned anything about Ohio State during its trip to Indianapolis, it's that it plays its best with its back against wall, which could bode well for the Buckeyes in the NCAA Tournament.
The problem for Ohio State, however, is that far too often, it finds itself with its back against the wall. Had the Buckeyes played Michigan evenly in the first half -- or even trailed by just 10 as opposed to 16 -- they likely would have advanced to their sixth consecutive conference championship game. But Ohio State's slow start cost the Buckeyes in the end and they'll now be watching Selection Sunday from Columbus for the first time since 2008.
Back to another bright spot, how about the play of Shannon Scott? The junior guard has fallen under fire with some Ohio State fans due to his propensity for turning the ball over, but he turned in perhaps the best performance of his college career with an 18-point, six-assist, five-rebound, three-steal effort against the Wolverines. I went back and forth with one Cleveland radio host and believe that Scott's play backed up my sentiment. And while I don't think that similar performances are likely heading into the tournament, I do think that it could be a glimpse of the type of play that the Buckeyes will be getting in their backcourt next season.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, Scott's best effort was matched by one of Craft's worst, although one could argue that Scott's stellar play negated Craft's foul trouble. Either way, Craft struggled through stretches when he was on the court, as his four turnovers, missed free throws and three-pointer that never happened at the buzzer all played a role in the Buckeyes' loss. As it has for the past four seasons, Ohio State will continue to live and die with Craft, but his next poor performance could be the last in his college career.
I didn't care for Craft's body language after the game, as he appeared to be wallowing in his own miscues. As a senior, I'm sure that losses affect Craft more than anybody else on the team and I also believe that the reality that the end of his college career is upon him is beginning to sink in. I'm sure that Craft's attitude will become more positive as soon as Ohio State receives its bid tomorrow, but he struck me as the one player in the Buckeyes' locker room who wasn't ready to move onto The Big Dance from a mental standpoint.
I asked Craft if he liked where the Buckeyes are heading into the NCAA Tournament. His answer: "Obviously I wish we were staying here again, but the way we fought in these three games was huge and that's something we need to build off of." Short, but sweet.
As for another positive, Ross continues to shine as the Buckeyes' go-to guy, with what was his sixth straight effort of scoring at least 19 points in a game. When Ohio State needs a bucket, it clearly looks for Ross now in the same way that the Buckeyes used to seek out Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. Ohio State's problem is no longer not having a guy who can do that, but rather needing to do the little things -- like make free throws -- that can win you a game.
You'd obviously always rather win than lose, but it is worth noting that Michigan is one of the best teams in the country. Sure, the Wolverines got hot -- and stayed hot -- from beyond the three-point arc, but with Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, I don't think it's a stretch to say that they have the most NBA talent of any team in the Big Ten. In my experience, that's been what has won games in March and when you couple Michigan's pro potential with the experience it gained during last season's run to the NCAA championship game, it's not hard to see why the Wolverines have been successful this season.
I mentioned earlier that I see this team being a second (or third if you count the play-in games) round out in the NCAA Tournament, but the pieces are certainly there for the Buckeyes to make a Sweet 16 run, if not deeper. OSU obviously struggles shooting the ball, but I'd rather be able to rely on my defense, which the Buckeyes have shown an ability to do. Without seeing their draw, I'll stick by my prediction of a Round of 32 exit, but don't be surprised if Ohio State finds a way to click next weekend.
Buckle up. As we've seen these past three days, this is the best time of the year.