Ohio State Backs Against the Wall

It's an unpleasant uncertainty. Not knowing if your club will win a game is bad enough. But not knowing if your team will be fulfilling dreams of appearing in the NCAA Tournament is worse. Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is probably unsettled with both propositions, but as his team is three days away from a huge home game, he's still thinking one game at a time.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday.

No, this Sunday is not some boat & RV show. It's not some highly publicized, price-is-right haven for entrepreneurs and shoppers alike. For Ohio State, it's a backs-against-the-wall survival of the fittest encounter with Big Ten tri-leading Wisconsin as part of life on the proverbial bubble.

Wednesday evening, interested observers need only turn on ESPN, or ESPN's Full Court package to see said NCAA Tournament bubble constricting, nearly to the point of implosion.

Miami (Fla.) beat Duke. Mississippi upset in-state Mississippi State. West Virginia took a spill on the road to Villanova. And even the defending National Champion Florida struggled at home against South Carolina, though ultimately prevailing 85-82.

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta won't say it. He's too busy talking about getting better and taking it one game at a time.

The NCAA Tournament, he's probably thinking, is not even the slightest of his concerns.

But deep down inside, you know he's got to be feeling the squeeze. The pressure inside that bubble is getting so heavy it could literally burst at any time.

Therefore, Sunday would be an inopportune time to lose. And just two days after that, the Buckeyes have the misfortune of traveling to Bloomington to face a second of the tri-leaders, Indiana.

Though Ohio State has defeated the Badgers at the Schottenstein Center the past two seasons, including last year's 49-48 rugby contest, the Buckeyes had lost three in a row at home to Wisconsin prior to that. Wisconsin is hungry for a Big Ten Title; Ohio State meanwhile is hungry just to stay alive.

And because CBS picked up the game to televise it on Sunday, the Buckeyes are given only 48 hours in between Wisconsin and Indiana.

"The Wisconsin was teetering on Saturday or Sunday and we were hoping like crazy it was going to be Saturday," Matta said Monday in the weekly Big Ten Coaches' Teleconference. "But I understand why it is on Sunday."

Regardless of the reasons, it's a possible feast-or-famine, do-or-die scenario. Of course, even losing both, the Buckeyes could rebound in the final three games and still have a shot at earning an at-large bid. But it's a dangerous game to play.

Ohio State (17-9, 8-5 Big Ten) on paper, given past history, would be all set with any sort of combination of victories giving them a 3-2 finish to the regular season. A 20-11, 11-7 record with a team boasting a strong schedule should be enough to impress the selection committee.

But it doesn't work that way.

Bottom line is that the Buckeyes lack the quality victories some of the other teams on the bubble possess. Wisconsin, who as of Thursday has an RPI of 12 and own a road win against Texas would be the ideal type of win the Buckeyes are looking for.

Wisconsin is in this position despite having lost Kammron Taylor and Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker.

"(The players) heard enough from people around them, ‘oh my God, what are you guys going to do next year?" Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said Monday. "You don't have your school's leading scorer. You don't have a clutch shooter in Kam Taylor. You don't have the post defender in Jason Chappell and so on and so forth. Players don't want to hear that."

Behind point guard Trevon Hughes (12.6 PPG, 2.6 APG) and senior center Brian Butch (12.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG), who dislocated an elbow in last year's regular season finale against Ohio State, Wisconsin has won 16 of their last 18 games. They shoot 35 percent from 3-point range, and as a team, average assists on 12-of-15 made field goal attempts per game.

Even without a Tucker, Devin Harris, Kirk Penney or Mike Wilkinson, Ryan has another typical Badger squad, which makes Ohio State's upcoming task that much harder.

As if it weren't bad enough.

If Ohio State protects the home floor on Sunday, and sneaks away with a victory in Indiana against what may be a Kelvin Sampson-less Indiana team, the Buckeyes might be in business for an at-large bid. Of course, getting Matta to think, much less talk, that far ahead is an unlikely feat.

That's OK. For Ohio State, there should be only one thing in their minds: Sunday, Sunday and Sunday.



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