Any other season, the trip from Indianapolis back to Columbus for the Ohio State men's basketball team might have been utter disappointment. Make no mistake, in the next 48 hours there will be plenty of anxiety.
But despite a 67-60 loss in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, the Buckeyes may still have life as an NCAA Tournament at-large contender.
Thanks to a slew of bubbles bursting on Thursday, no fewer than 12 at-large contenders being knocked off in their respective conference tournaments, Ohio State may still appear on the field of 65 teams when the bracket is announced Sunday evening on CBS.
Ohio State (19-13) is far from the ideal resume heading into judgment weekend for the NCAA selection committee, but a nationwide collapse of contenders has the Buckeyes looking, at very worst, no more bleak than the competition.
Friday's loss, a dagger to the heart of the Buckeyes, was a byproduct of several missed opportunities and defensive lapses. The most notable, was a breakdown in communication allowing senior guard Drew Neitzel an uncontested lay-up from a sideline entry pass around the two-minute mark, and down just three points with 1:30 remaining, a heartbreaking 3-pointer by Neitzel to extend the lead to six – three of his game-high 28 points.
Beating a ranked Tom Izzo-team is tough enough. But when you're trying to do it for the second time in five days, it's an unenviable task.
That was the task laid out to the feet of the Buckeyes on Friday. With NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the balance, Ohio State was expected to follow-up a 63-54 victory on Sunday with an encore performance. Instead, the underachieving Spartans, Big Ten preseason favorites that finished fourth in the regular season, played with a chip on their shoulders.
Tied 30-30 at halftime, the Buckeyes looked to be in terrific shape heading into the second half. For five minutes, they were.
However, a total of five fouls called in just 120 seconds against the Buckeyes, including three on 7-footer Kosta Koufos and a pair on Othello Hunter, including a technical, changed the complexion of the game entirely. The technical was a controversial one, as replays showed Hunter did nothing more than lip the words "oh no," after drawing a personal under the basket trying to block the shot of forward Goran Suton.
Despite the negative momentum, which gave Koufos three fouls and Hunter four, the Buckeyes were able to recover just enough to stay competitive. But when the Buckeyes were showing signs of life, cutting the lead to three eventually, their defensive meltdowns allowing Neitzel an easy five points put the final nail in the coffin.
Accordingly, Michigan St. will advance Saturday to the semifinals to play top-seeded Big Ten Champion Wisconsin, while Ohio State awaits its fate for Sunday's selection show.
Contrary to popular belief, though a bid is far from a sure thing, the Buckeyes may not be in dire straits.
Ohio State's overall strength of schedule, No. 17 nationally before Friday's game, is higher than most bubble teams. Wins against Purdue and Michigan St. in the final week of the regular season gave the Buckeyes two profile victories it sorely needed, and late in the season – a feather in the cap for any bubble team.
Further, losses by Florida, Syracuse, Arizona St, Massachusetts, UAB, Mississippi, Florida St, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico and Dayton in the past 36 hours mean very few teams on the fringe bolstered their own profiles coming down the stretch. The result may be a victory for the Buckeyes in a battle of attrition.
As for Friday, the Buckeyes may as well put it behind them.
Clearly, the Spartans were the better team on this day. Motivated to prove they haven't completely spoiled a highly-anticipated season, Michigan St. played with energy, passion and more under control than Sunday – when they committed 21 turnovers.
Ohio State made some shots and likewise, made enough plays to stay competitive, but when push came to shove, they couldn't come up with the clutch baskets as often as Sunday. More importantly, the Spartans contained their dribble penetration just enough to avoid the Buckeyes winning the game at the foul line. When Ohio State had the chance to do so, they couldn't take advantage, going 9-of-14.
When Michigan State Had the Ball
*Clearly Neitzel, former Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan, was the x-factor. From the very first possession, where Neitzel drilled an open 3-pointer from 26 feet with nothing but the bottom of net, he played crisp, sharp basketball. Even when Ohio State contained him for much of the second half, there he was canning two back-breaking shots late in the game.
*Other than Neitzel, the Spartans got just enough production from guys they've been waiting on all season. Freshman Durrell Summers had a huge stretch at one point midway through the second half, hammering a 3-pointer from the corner, and after a sloppy Buckeye turnover, Summers slipped behind the defense for an easy lay-up in transition. In a tight, low-scoring game, just a few of these plays were the difference between a win and loss.
*The Buckeyes, beyond the inexcusable gifts given to Neitzel, actually played strong defense. Outside of Neitzel, Ohio State limited Michigan St. to just 13-of-43 from the field, 30 percent. But the extra 12 possessions from Sunday to today (nine turnovers instead of 21) attributed to the 14 point differential for the Spartans from this past weekend.
*Once again Michigan St. as it customarily does out-rebounded the Buckeyes on the offensive end. The Spartans gained 15 boards on the offensive glass, some coming when Ohio State's frontcourt fouls had piled up and the Buckeyes were forced to play conservatively.
*Sunday, Raymar Morgan scored 19 points for the Spartans, gnashing the Buckeyes' holes in the zone. This time around, Morgan went just 3-of-14 from the field and finished with 8 points.
*Starting the last few possessions of the first half, Ohio State employed a chaser (David Lighty) on Neitzel, to disallow him from working baseline screens and coming cross court to get open 3-point looks. Ohio State got away from it late, giving Neitzel some more uncontested 3's. However, clearly the Buckeyes were at a major disadvantage with backup point guard P.J. Hill in the game late, as a couple of the looks resulted from confusion between he and Koufos on the wing in picking up defensive assignments.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*Though the Buckeyes never fully panicked in the second half, you could sense a little desperation in Jamar Butler as the seconds ticked away. Over the last few minutes, Butler launched a few quick 3-pointers trying to get the Buckeyes back in the game. Perhaps attributed to the Spartans' defensive efforts keeping the Buckeyes out of the paint, Butler's attempts at a third straight game of heroics fell short with just 11 points.
*It was one of the best games all season for Koufos, who has struggled mightily at times. Koufos looked as comfortable as he's been all season, scoring 19 points on 8-of-13 from the field. The Spartans did a great job on Koufos defensively when he was setting up in the post, but had problems guarding him on the perimeter. Koufos has been clamoring to spend more time facing the basket – a convenience he may enjoy should he elect to return for his sophomore season as 7-foot McDonald's All-American B.J. Mullens joins the fold next year.
*In the first half, the penetration of Evan Turner and Lighty was a thorn in the Spartan side. However, sans a few exceptions where Turner drew away Spartan defenders to deliver a couple of easy assists under the hoop, Michigan St. cut off most of the Buckeyes' dribble penetration late in the game.
*Perhaps the most critical time for Ohio State, with Hunter picking up his third and fourth fouls, was when he was forced to ride the bench for a short time. At that time, Hunter was picking up several loose-change types of offensive rebounds and keeping the Buckeyes' errant shots alive on the offensive end. His work on the glass forced foul trouble on Suton, who equally had nine rebounds of his own. However, for the short few possessions that Hunter was forced to give way to freshman center Dallas Lauderdale, his presence was clearly missed.