Monday Morning Point Guard: A Rough Year

We are back with our news and notes column on college basketball, the Monday Morning Point Guard. Today, we look at where the OSU program stands after absorbing its worst defeat in six years. Plus, we look at the Big Ten race and what's happening in college basketball.

Welcome to Monday Morning Point Guard!

I still don't know if this column will be a weekly feature or not (last week, obviously, it was not), but we are back for the fourth edition of Monday Morning Point Guard. It is patterned after my Sunday Morning Quarterback series. Hopefully, I'll have a quick read on the OSU basketball scene as well as what's happening in the Big Ten and the nation at large.

Without any further adieu, let's get right to it:

* It is one thing to lose a few games, but what must be troubling to anybody who cares about Ohio State is the way OSU has lost games this season.

If you get beat on a buzzer beater or because of a bad call or somebody misses a shot to force overtime, that's fine. But when it's Feb. 16 and your team is sitting at 11-12 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten and you take a look at the 12 defeats, all you can do is shake your head.

Of those 12 defeats, the closest two have been by eight points (Texas Tech and Indiana). The rest have all been by double digits, including blowouts at the hands of San Diego State (22 points), Georgia Tech (20), Seton Hall (16, but felt more like 30), Illinois (22), Penn State (17) and Wisconsin (30).

In many of these games, OSU was never even in the game. This latest loss, a 78-48 shiner at Big Ten-leading Wisconsin, did see the Buckeyes actually hold a one-point lead at 28-27 with 2:35 left. But that is when the Badgers exploded and scored 45 of the game's next 61 points to blow it wide open. The 30-point loss was OSU's worst since a 32-point defeat at the hands of Purdue in 1998.

This was not how this season was supposed to go. I don't think anybody thought OSU would field a Final Four team this season. But getting beaten like this week in and week out, all season long? Nobody saw this coming.

As the time ran down on this latest absolute debacle, ESPN's Steve Lavin said all the right things. "This Ohio State team could still be dangerous at the Big Ten tournament …" and so on.

Lavin has probably now done four or five OSU games (Dick Vitale has assigned him almost exclusively to the Big Ten this season, particularly since none of the conference's games seem to be more than a small blip on the national radar). You‘d think Lavin would have a better sense of where this OSU team is at right now.

Lavin also propped up OSU coach Jim O'Brien for "continuing to teach" through such an adverse situation.

But it wasn't supposed to go like this, was it?

There are lots of questions right now about this program. I have no doubt O'Brien is going nowhere. He has an iron clad, long-term contract and this is not the kind of financial climate conducive to paying him a big buyout.

Moreover, I think O'Brien is entitled to a year or two like this after everything he did for OSU over the previous five years.

But it begs the question -- considering this entire nucleus returns next season, except for Velimir Radinovic and Shun Jenkins -- if this team will be much better 12 months from now. OSU will add at least three new recruits to the mix in point guard extraordinaire Jamar Butler (my pick for Mr. Basketball) and forwards Matt Terwilliger and Jermyll Jackson-Wilson.

Hopes remain high that OSU will be able to entice Detroit Renaissance's Malik Hairston, the nation's top small forward, to also sign with the Buckeyes this spring.

Many have painted him as the savior, not that O'Brien has ever subscribed to such a theory: "We don't need to be saved," he used to say about questions whether he was after a certain unnamed high school phenom (LeBron James and many others).

Well, they need something because the nucleus they have in place ain't exactly getting it done. And, as noted above, they haven't gotten it done this season in spectacular fashion.

Following this latest clubbing (or was it a drubbing?), O'Brien told listeners on WBNS-AM, "We're not going to stop coaching. We are going to keep working to try and get better and better. We just have to hope some things go our way, but at some point we have to make some breaks ourselves."

* An interesting thought, with Radinovic leaving, might be to emulate what Michigan State has done this year and go with a 1-4 alignment (i.e., one man inside, which would be Terence Dials, and four on the perimeter). OSU should have the guards to make such an arrangement work.

Butler and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham could split time at the one. Tony Stockman, provided he promises to never go 1-for-11 ever again (as he did Saturday), would be at the two. J.J. Sullinger and, provided they get him, Hairston could be at the three. Matt Sylvester and Ivan Harris would be smaller "fours", but could also get the job done outside the paint offensively.

Obviously, it is a simplistic view of the situation. But a potential solution, nonetheless. Barring a late signing of some sort, I wonder if OSU's lack of depth inside might be exploited by some opponents (the really big and athletic ones) next season.

* If the season ended today, here's how the pairings would look for the Big Ten tournament (set for March 11-14 in Indianapolis):

Opening Round: Michigan (8) vs. Penn State (9), Purdue (7) vs. Ohio State (10), Indiana (6) vs. Minnesota (11).

Quarterfinals: Wisconsin (1) vs. Michigan-PSU winner, Michigan State (2) vs. Purdue-OSU winner, Illinois (3) vs. IU-Minnesota winner, Northwestern (4) vs. Iowa (5).

Of course, these seedings can and will change between now and the end of the regular season March 7. The two big races are to be in the top three (you get to play a team that had to play on Thursday) and the top five (you don't have to play on Thursday).

And, of course, the main race is for the top spot and the Big Ten championship. Wisconsin can make it three straight years if it can hold on. But it will not be easy. The Badgers must play four of their last six games on the road, including trips to Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana.

Michigan State plays three of its last five at home and the road games, Michigan and Penn State, are hardly that imposing.

Like Wisconsin, Illinois also plays four of its last six games on the road. But the trips are much more palatable. In fact, the Illini could be playing for a piece of the conference crown when they close the regular season at Ohio State, likely March 6 at noon.

As for Ohio State, what can we say?

Three of the next four games are on the road. At 11-12, OSU needs to go 4-2 the rest of the way to assure itself of an NIT bid. Anything less makes even that prospect unlikely and would probably signal OSU's first losing record since 1997-98.

Ohio State This Week

* The Buckeyes host Iowa (13-9, 6-5) Wednesday at 8 p.m. on ESPN-Plus. OSU dropped a 79-65 decision at Iowa Jan. 24 in a game Tony Stockman missed due to a one-game suspension. The Iowa backcourt of Jeff Horner (20 points), Brody Boyd (19) and Pierre Pierce (15) led the way. Brandon Fuss-Cheatham had a career-high 17 points, while J.J. Sullinger scored 15. The teams combined for 57 fouls (33 on OSU) and shot 74 free throws. Iowa led 30-20 at halftime and never let OSU any closer than eight in the final 20 minutes. OSU won two of three games from Iowa last year, but lost at home 71-64.

* OSU then visits Indiana (12-10, 6-5) Saturday at 8 p.m. on ESPN-Plus. Indiana gutted out a 69-61 win over OSU Jan. 20 in Columbus. Bracey Wright had 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, while Marshall Strickland scored 19. Along with Donald Perry (2 points), IU's three-man backcourt outscored OSU's 49-17. Terence Dials led OSU with 19 points, while Velimir Radinovic added 16 points and eight rebounds. Assembly Hall has been a house of horrors for Ohio State over the years. OSU is just 4-26 in Assembly Hall all-time with the wins coming in 1985, 1991, 1999 and 2000. Strickland had 15 points a year ago as IU won 69-51 in Bloomington.

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Purdue at Michigan State, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- Purdue rallied late to force overtime in the first meeting and won 76-70. Expect another all-out war. MSU needs the win to stay in pace with Wisconsin and to bolster its NCAA resume.

* Wisconsin at Illinois, Wednesday, 8 p.m. -- The Illini should be itching for revenge. They were exposed 76-56 Jan. 17 in Madison. That is Illinois' only loss in its last seven games. A win would keep Illinois on pace with Wisconsin and MSU in the Big Ten race.

* Wisconsin at Michigan, Sunday, 2 p.m. (CBS) -- UM's NCAA hopes are dangling by a thread at 13-8 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines lost 74-63 Jan. 21 in Madison. They desperately need a win to improve their chances at an NCAA bid.

National Games To Watch This Week

* Notre Dame at Syracuse, tonight, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- Fighting Irish flying high after wins over UConn and Seton Hall. But now they must hit the road.

* Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, tonight, 9 p.m. (ESPN) -- Cowboys rolled 77-56 in first meeting in Stillwater.

* Duke at Wake Forest, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) -- Dookies must shake off the loss to N.C. State and focus on the Demon Deacons, who are tough at home.

* Louisville at Cincinnati, Saturday, 1 p.m. (ABC) -- Cardinals beat UC like a rented mule 93-66 first time around in Louisville.

* Notre Dame at UConn, Saturday, 2 p.m. (CBS) -- Huskies will want revenge and they also need to stop their losing skid.

* Gonzaga at Tulsa, Saturday, 6 p.m. (ESPN2) -- Gonzaga steps out of West Coast Conference as part of Bracket Buster.

* Maryland at Duke, Sunday, 4 p.m. (CBS) -- Always entertaining when these two hook up. Duke won 68-60 at College Park.

* Wake Forest at Georgia Tech, Sunday 8 p.m. (Fox Sports Net) -- Yellow Jackets won 73-66 at Winston-Salem.

My National Top 16

After its loss at N.C. State (which was no real disgrace), Duke drops from the top spot. But, I'm sorry, I still can't give St. Joseph's the nod at No. 2 over the Dookies. There is a glass ceiling for Atlantic 10 teams. As for my top 16, N.C. State and North Carolina move in. Georgia Tech and Kansas move out.

My list: Stanford, Duke, St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, UConn, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, N.C. State, Louisville, Wake Forest, Arizona, Cincinnati, North Carolina.

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