Despite a 2-3 road record and a 7-3 mark overall within the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are still in the running for a third consecutive conference championship thanks in large part to come crafty scheduling.
One game more than halfway through the newly expanded conference schedule, OSU has eight regular-season games remaining. The Buckeyes currently sit fifth in the conference standings, but have the potential to move up during the back part of the season.
That is due to the fact that each of the four teams ahead of OSU still have trips to Value City Arena on the schedule, where the Buckeyes are 5-0 in Big Ten play and 12-1 overall.
First on the schedule is No. 14/13 Indiana, the third-place team with an 8-1 record in the conference. Then, following a two-game road swing against bottom-feeders Penn State and Michigan, the Buckeyes will return to host No. 8 Wisconsin on Feb. 24.
The Badgers are currently tied with Purdue atop the conference standings with a 9-1 record. The Boilermakers defeated OSU on their home court Jan. 12, but the Buckeyes will get a chance for revenge as part of a season-closing two-game homestand against No. 24 Purdue and No. 11/10 Michigan State, the team ahead of OSU in the standings with a 7-2 conference record.
It all adds up to a paint a picture that, regardless of who they are playing, the Buckeyes could find themselves back in the thick of the conference title chase if they take care of business on their home court.
It all starts with the Hoosiers, a team OSU senior guard Jamar Butler described as being a rival comparable to the Wolverines and the Spartans for the Buckeyes.
"That's really key for us," he said. "The top four teams are coming in here, and we need a key win. I look at our schedule and our wins and losses and I can't really find a key win on there."
In addition to the Big Ten hunt, then, the Buckeyes are recognizing that the tough schedule they have played to this point in the season might not be enough to get them a berth in the NCAA Tournament. OSU is 16-7 overall and has played one of the nation's most difficult schedules, but the Buckeyes lack a defining win – a factor often looked at by those on the selection committee for the tournament.
Butler pointed to OSU's 79-65 victory against Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off as the closest thing the team has to a big win, but the Orangemen – ranked No. 21 in the country at the time – have fallen out of the rankings and sit with a 16-8 record that is comparable to the one put forth by OSU thus far.
In addition the Buckeyes have beaten an 18-5 Florida team that also lacks a defining victory.
Perhaps to address the situation, head coach Thad Matta shared a story with his team in the past few weeks. Although he could not pinpoint when he told it, Matta pointed to the 2003-04 Xavier team he coached that was 10-9 after suffering a loss to Dayton on Jan. 31, 2004.
From there, the Musketeers would come together and reach the Elite Eight, falling one game short of making it to the Final Four.
The lesson then was the same as it is now: concentrate on what you can control and let the other chips fall where they may.
"My mindset is we look at Indiana and say, ‘OK, here's what we've got to do,' and we look at ourselves and say, ‘OK, this is what we have to do to get better,' " he said. "Thinking about something doesn't change it.
"Let's just control what we can control. There's so much that still has to shake down, so let's keep the focus on us and strive to get better, strive to get guys playing more consistent and let things happen from there."
Hopefully for the Buckeyes, that approach will help them to get that needed signature victory. To get the team ready for the Hoosiers, Butler said he will likely speak to the team sometime on Saturday.
"Right now we're just focusing on Indiana," he said. "That's the team we're playing on Sunday. They're a great team and we do need a key win. I just hope we're all ready to go Sunday at 1 o'clock when the ball goes into the air."