Despite falling behind 51-46 late in the second half, the Buckeyes finished with a 17-5 run to close out the game and win 63-56 in a physical Saturday afternoon thriller.
In a game of 11 ties and 11 lead changes, Ohio State had to beat the upset-minded Boilermakers despite just 21 minutes played by prized freshman center Greg Oden. The 7-1 Oden was plagued with foul trouble for much of the second half when he did play, meaning the Buckeyes had to find a way without him.
That way was critical defense down the stretch and clutch play-making by guards Mike Conley and Jamar Butler. The 6-1 freshman Conley had 14 points - his fourth consecutive game scoring in double-figures.
A 3-pointer by Purdue's David Teague gave the Boilermakers their five-point advantage, 51-46. However, the Buckeyes answered by closing off penetration by Tarrance Crump, who had 12 points, and denied Teague any more open jumpers. Teague finished with a team-high 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting from outside the arc.
Despite playing just half the game, Oden managed 14 points, nine rebounds, a pair of blocks and a pair of steals for the Buckeyes. His presence the last three minutes affected Purdue, who was looking for several key baskets as the game was in the final minutes. Butler added 9 points for Ohio State.
What Purdue Did Right and Ohio State Did Wrong
* Crump and Purdue really hurt Ohio State with dribble penetration, especially in the second half when Oden was on the bench with foul problems. Ohio State defenders will have to change their mindsets when their 7-1 teammate is on the bench, especially during the tournament. When Ohio State has Oden on the floor, their perimeter players can get up in the faces of their defenders, knowing if they're beat off the dribble, they have a shot-blocking center behind them. When he's not on the floor, however, Ohio State needs to be a little more conservative.
* It's a catch-22 for Ohio State when Matt Terwilliger is in the game. On one hand, he has some offensive skill with both the ability to step out and hit a long-range jumper as well as enough quickness to score inside. He's had some big games in his Ohio State career. While he's capable of scoring some points when he has the confidence to hit an open look, such as his 3-pointer early in the game, the Buckeyes continue to struggle with their interior defense when he's on the floor. Terwilliger has struggled locating his man in transition this season, and he's had a hard time guarding on the blocks in both allowing deep positioning and players making quick moves to get around him. One thing is for certain: a productive Terwilliger on both ends makes Ohio State a much better team.
* This was a game I thought Daequan Cook might re-emerge as a strong scoring threat for Ohio State. He only played 19 minutes, and despite a 2-of-7 showing from the field, Cook had a lot of good looks inside but just didn't finish. Ohio State needs Cook's instant scoring down the stretch, so now may be the time to get him on track. Early in the season, Cook's shot selection and decision-making were questionable at times, despite his stellar ability to take over a game. Both his choice in shots and decisions with the basketball have improved tremendously. Beyond defensive consistency, it doesn't appear there's much else that should be holding Cook back.
* If there's a big knock on Ohio State, it remains their inability to play 40 minutes of basketball. The bright side for Ohio State fans recently, is that the Buckeyes are not playing their best basketball, but winning games without making 12 3-pointers or running teams out of the building with their quickness and athleticism. That bad news is that Ohio State is still trying to string together two great halves and put teams away when they get near a double-digit advantage.
* When Oden returned with three fouls in the second half, Ohio State immediately went to a 2-3 zone. The zone was extremely effective for two possessions in lieu of the problems Ohio State had cutting off penetration. The move also could help protect Oden from picking up a foul. However, Ohio State shifted right back to man and off an in-bounds play, gave up an open 3-pointer off a screen to free up Teague. I thought Ohio State should have remained in the zone a little longer and made Purdue shoot them out of it. That said, considering the defensive effort Ohio State gave over the last four minutes, it's hard to fault the move much, if at all.
What Ohio State Did Right and Purdue Did Wrong
* The stats won't show the job that Othello Hunter did Saturday. He had just 2 points and three rebounds, but Hunter was a key staple defensively with Oden out of the lineup. Comparisons are already being thrown around to George Reese in terms of a role for Ohio State, and he can have that kind of impact in the tournament. Historically, runs are made in the NCAA Tournament when guys like Hunter step up in both scoring and on defense.
* Ohio State has finally begun to develop an offensive identity the last few weeks. Instead of living and dying by the 3-pointer, the Buckeyes have balanced inside-outside passing and better ball movement in their offensive sets. Further, there has been less standing around offensively. Most importantly, Ohio State is taking better care of the basketball and committing very few turnovers. This has meant that Ohio State does not have to nail a ton of 3-pointers any longer to win tough games. Ohio State is averaging just eight turnovers in their last three games.
* Purdue's inability to close off points in transition for Ohio State led to the Buckeyes' late run. Ohio State was getting turnovers on defense and converting them into points at the other end. With Ohio State producing more consistently in half-court sets, transition game is not nearly the must it was earlier in the year. That said, Ohio State is winning games down the stretch because of how many times those possessions in transition add-up against the opposing team.
* For the umpteenth time, the game was also partially decided based on the breakdown ability of Conley. Conley scored in double-digits for the fourth time in a row. Conley has slowly gained more confidence in his shot, as the stats have shown, but he continues to abuse defenders and get to the rim with very little resistance. Conley's attacking and Butler's adjustment to his new role have combined on the execution and productivity outlined above with Ohio State's half-court emergence.
* Lastly, but certainly not least, you have to be encouraged by the three or four possessions in the second half that freshman David Lighty was aggressive and looked to score. He scored two consecutive Ohio State baskets for the Buckeyes midway through the second half, and also attempted a 3-pointer on a third possession that was blocked. However, that little spurt was a small step for most players but a large leap for Lighty.
Ohio State's strategy over the remaining three weeks of the regular season is simple: win the games they're supposed to win and protect their home floor in their showdown with Wisconsin on Feb. 25. Until that game, Ohio State must focus on road games against Penn State and Minnesota before returning home again against Penn State and then the Badgers.
If Ohio State goes 4-0 against the other teams beyond Wisconsin, they can win the conference outright with a win against the Badgers. That might also be enough to earn a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament barring an early Big Ten Tournament exit. With Wisconsin having a home-and-home against Michigan State to close out their season, Ohio State needs only to take care of their own business closing out the season.
Overall, it's the third time this has been said: but you have to like the fact Ohio State escaped with a victory despite not playing to their full potential. They're closing out games without raining threes.
They've finally got an identity. Now they need to improve that identity.