OSU Trying To Avoid The Bubble

A few weeks ago, it looked like Ohio State had all but wrapped up a berth in the Big Dance. However, a three-game losing streak has tempered those thoughts and now the Buckeyes find themselves in must-win mode as fourth-place Penn State comes to town.

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta doesn't like to look at it this way, but tonight's game falls into the must-win category.

With a contest against a surging Penn State team next on the docket (7 p.m., ESPN), the Buckeyes find themselves in the position of needing a win to keep from inching closer and closer to not making the NCAA Tournament. OSU sits at 17-8 overall, the same record it held following a Feb. 13 victory against Northwestern last season. From there, the Buckeyes embarked upon a four-game losing streak that doomed them to the NIT.

However, things are a little different this time around. OSU has reached a second-half swoon sooner than it did a year ago, having dropped three straight heading into the contest against the Nittany Lions. Projected as high as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament during the season, OSU now finds itself likely looking at being a No. 8 seed according to The Bracket Matrix, a website that compiles 57 different brackets from across the country.

The Nittany Lions, thanks in part to road victories against Michigan State and Illinois, are listed by ESPN's Joe Lunardi as one of the last four teams to make the tournament and have won two straight.

Lunardi and others are projecting the Big Ten to send seven teams to the tournament this year, meaning the seventh-place Buckeyes can ill-afford to lose to the Nittany Lions who currently hold sole possession of fourth place. An OSU win would catapult it into a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference less than three weeks away from the conference tournament.

While all of that paints a picture of importance for the Buckeyes regarding tonight's game, Matta said he does not view things that way.

"It's more about trying to find ways to get a little bit better and make some plays down the stretch and get back on the winning track," he said. "I really believe the only thing that you can truly control is how you are playing, and to have more anxiety or whatever it is (about making the tournament), speaking from my standpoint I just want our guys to play well."

No one factor has been the primary reason for the fact that the Buckeyes have dropped three close contests in a row. In each game, perhaps one more defensive rebound or another basket down the stretch might have been all the difference needed to reverse the final outcome in favor of OSU.

However, all those reasons can be summed up by what Matta feels is plaguing his team: a lack of overall awareness.

"The last couple games we haven't had the awareness we need," he said. "We are reacting to everything and there is no attack, just react. We have got to find ways to somehow inject that into us.

"The coaches and players have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Here we go.' This isn't the time to throw yourself a pity party. We have to find ways to get the job done."

One player who will not throw a pity party, as Matta suggested, is PSU forward Jamelle Cornley. A Columbus native, Cornley has seen the Nittany Lions come frustratingly close to knocking off the Buckeyes during his tenure there.

On Valentine's Day two seasons ago, an OSU team led by the likes of Greg Oden, Michael Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook pulled out a two-point victory at the Bryce Jordan Center. It is the closest his team has come to defeating OSU during his career, but just two of the six games between the two teams have been decided by more than 10 points.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "We're just one of those teams where we always play that team tough. The last couple years the ball hasn't bounced our way in order for us to actually get a victory."

Cornley's hope is that the Nittany Lions' four seniors will give the Nittany Lions an edge over an OSU team that is devoid of seniors. Still, he said he expects tonight's game to come down to the very end.

"I think we're going to be able to play them tough," he said. "It's just going to be a matter of who makes the tough plays at the end of the game, who makes clutch free throws and whoever is going to step up."

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