Big Ten Tourney Preview

Ohio State enters the Big ten Tournament tomorrow with the sour taste of its 24-point loss to Wisconsin still fresh in its mouth. We take a look at how the Buckeyes could move forward and what's at stake in Chicago.

By the time Ohio State takes the court in the Big Ten Tournament tomorrow night in Chicago, the team will have had about 96 hours to think about its embarrassing 72-48 Senior-Day loss to Wisconsin.

Whether that will be enough time for the Buckeyes to move on from the 24-point defeat or if that loss will linger at the United Center remains to be seen, but regardless the Buckeyes (22-9, 11-7) will be forced to take the floor as the six seed in the conference tournament.

Ohio State doesn’t know whether they will face No. 11 Minnesota or No. 14 Rutgers (those two play tonight at 7 p.m.), but head coach Thad Matta knows that the Buckeyes need to put Sunday’s game behind them.

“It’s more of just having the understanding that we can’t change what happened Sunday and that’s over with,” Matta said. “We had one of those games, let’s don’t have another one of those the remainder of the season. I hope we washed it down the drain afterward and guys are ready to go.”

History would suggest the Buckeyes will be ready. Under Matta, the Buckeyes are an impressive 21-6 at the Big Ten Tournament with four conference titles, most recently in 2013. Matta is tied with Tom Izzo for the most conference tournament crowns since the inception of the event in 1998.

Matta acknowledged that his impressive history in the Big Ten Tournament does nothing for the 2015 Buckeyes. But considering his ability to get teams to string together wins after the regular season, does he know whether his current team has what it takes?

“I don’t know,” Matta said. “From Butler to Xavier to here, for whatever reason our teams have always done well in the conference tournament. I know we’ve talked about this in previous years: It’s not like we feed them something different or we do scouting different or anything like that. It just kind of clicks I think and that’s why I’m interested in how these guys do.

“You need a little bit of luck. I think a lot of it is getting through that first game.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what awaits the Buckeyes in their first conference tournament game and beyond.

The Path Through Chicago

Ohio State will face either the Scarlet Knights (10-21, 2-14) or Golden Gophers (17-14, 6-12) in their first game of the conference tournament at the United Center. The Buckeyes have already topped both of those teams this season, earning 79-60 win at last place Rutgers on Feb. 8 and a 74-72 overtime win at Minnesota on Jan. 6.

Though the Buckeyes have already topped both of their potential opponents this season, the Buckeyes have been unpredictable away from Value City Arena, posting just a 4-7 record on the road including a 0-1 mark in neutral-site games.

“You’ve gotta be a tough-minded basketball team,” Matta said. “You’ve got to have sort of a relentless approach.

“One of the big keys is that togetherness that you have because it is game after game after game and you’ve gotta have a purpose, you’ve gotta have a cause when you go into these things.”

I would be surprised if the Buckeyes don’t have a rematch with the gritty Gophers as Rutgers has struggled mightily in its first run through the conference. Assuming the Buckeyes can get by Minnesota – certainly no guarantee after Ohio State escaped Minneapolis with a two-point, overtime win – the bracket is rather favorable.

Waiting in the quarterfinals for the Buckeyes would be third-seeded Michigan State. The Spartans won six of their final eight games, including four road victories, to finish the season tied for third in the conference standings. One of those Michigan State wins came at Ohio State’s expense, a 59-56 Spartans victory on the strength of a last-second shot from Denzel Valentine in East Lansing on Feb. 14.

Still, Ohio State was very much in that game. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the Buckeyes getting by the Spartans, especially if you can look to Sunday’s performance as more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.

“It was a tough loss, but I feel like it can trigger a great point in what we need to do and what needs to be done and all the work that we need to do to be successful in the tournament,” D’Angelo Russell said of the Wisconsin game. “We need to just take it as a learning point.”

After the Spartans, Maryland would likely be waiting. While the game came before Marc Loving’s suspension and subsequent disappearance from the scoring column, the Buckeyes topped the Terrapins by 24 points earlier this season.

The Buckeyes landed in the right half of the bracket as they avoid an Iowa team that beat them twice, perhaps their least favorable matchup of similarly ranked teams in Purdue and the best team in the league in Wisconsin. While I wouldn’t call a trip to the conference finals likely, things certainly could be worse.

The Favorite: Wisconsin

Outside of Columbus, the biggest question entering the Big Ten Tournament remains can anyone beat the Badgers?

Wisconsin lost just twice in conference play this year, somehow falling to Rutgers (I know it was without Frank Kaminsky, but the talent disparity still favored the Badgers) and to Maryland. The Badgers would have a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they cut down the nets in Chicago and they are the overwhelming favorite to do just that.

The Sleepers

Aside from the top two seeds, I like Purdue and Iowa as sleepers to contend for the championship. Those teams will likely meet tomorrow afternoon, so one of my sleepers will be going home early. Still, Iowa has been playing inspired ball lately and Aaron White presents a difficult matchup.

Purdue, meanwhile, has two 7-footers as well as one of the conference’s best perimeter defenders. If one or two guys can get hot offensively for the Boilermakers, they could make it to Sunday.

What is at Stake?

Seeding. NCAA tournament seeding to be exact.

Despite an uninspired end to the season, the Buckeyes have already cemented themselves in the NCAA Tournament field. Even a loss tomorrow shouldn’t keep them from going dancing. They could, however, drastically improve their position.

Entering the tournament Ohio State was projected as an eight seed by both ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm. Depending on what happens around the country, the Buckeyes could climb all the way to a six seed if they win the conference tournament. What has been holding Ohio State back is its poor record away from home and its lack of wins against RPI Top 50 teams. They can improve in both of those categories in Chicago.

The Buckeyes come to Chicago just 1-6 against Top 50 opponents but could face Michigan State (No. 27), Maryland (No. 9) and Wisconsin (No. 4) if they were to make it to the tournament’s final day. If Ohio State could get just two more wins over Top 50 teams it would go a long way towards improving their seed line for the NCAA tournament.

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