After finishing the regular season with two big wins against ranked teams, Ohio State found itself back on the good side of the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble. Predictions were mixed, but it appeared that the Buckeyes were positioned to make a return appearance to the tournament.
To remove all doubt, the Buckeyes had one tall task: They had to defeat No. 19 Michigan State, the team they had beaten just five days prior.
OSU, in essence, controlled its own destiny, but the more experienced Spartans pulled away down the stretch for the 67-60 victory. Now, a Buckeye team that had appeared to be putting things together right at the last second finds itself in an unenviable position.
They must wait.
"I'm going to pray," senior forward Matt Terwilliger said.
That is about all the Buckeyes can do between now and Selection Sunday.
Entering Friday morning, OSU stood to benefit from a week that saw several other teams in similar positions falter. Teams like Syracuse, Florida and Massachusetts all suffered losses that likely knocked themselves on the other side of the bubble.
Playing in a conference that holds the latest postseason tournament, the Buckeyes were able to sit by idly and watch before taking the court Friday afternoon. By that time, a victory that seemed a requirement just a few days prior was seen as anything but an absolute necessity.
"We put ourselves in this position," Terwilliger said. "We're kind of at the mercy of the committee right now and the people that make decisions. Hopefully they'll put us in, but it's really up to them. There's nothing we can do."
One thing they will do that will have no effect on the selection committee is practice. The Buckeyes will take to the court tomorrow and work on what went wrong against the Spartans and will follow that up with a film session.
The Buckeyes have a solid resume to make the tournament. A team with five freshmen played one of the most difficult early-season schedules with neutral-site games against Syracuse and Texas A&M, road games against Butler and Cleveland State and a home game with then-No. 1 North Carolina.
OSU entered the game with the nation's 14th-toughest schedule, but it was just 3-9 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index – a factor used to determine which teams are worthy of making the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Thad Matta said he might have to look into dialing down the team's non-conference schedule next season for a team that will have no seniors on its roster.
But after the loss, freshman guard Evan Turner said the Buckeyes deserve to make the tournament based on the type of team they are.
"I think we're of that caliber," he said. "I think we're a defensive-minded team. We play hard. I think we're just a good enough team to make the NCAA Tournament and win games in there."
The biggest thing working in OSU's favor was the fact that it had won two straight against ranked foes, giving the team its first winning streak in more than a month. Suddenly, a team that looked dead in the water had life.
But a rematch with the Spartans proved to be too much.
"We ended the season real strong and we're playing real well right now," sophomore swingman David Lighty said. "I guess we kind of hit our peak at the right time. Hopefully they'll take that into consideration."
However, Lighty added that this is uncharted territory. One season ago, the Buckeyes were virtually assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in a season that saw them bring home a program-record 35 victories.
Despite the differences between last year and this one, Matta gave a lengthy answer when asked about his team's chances. After outlining the turnover on the roster, the early-season schedule and the consistency shown by the Buckeyes down the stretch, he got to the crux of his feelings.
"As you watch this team grow, as you watch this team get better, I think we're an NCAA Tournament team – without question," he said.
Unfortunately for his charges, Matta does not determine that. All that is left is to hope that the committee agrees with him.