The Ohio State men’s basketball team snuck back into the Associated Press top 25 on Monday, but just barely.
Now No. 23 in the nation once again, the Buckeyes have two games to play in the regular season with their Big Ten Tournament status on the line. Yes, OSU will be in Chicago for the tournament no matter what, along with the other 13 teams in the conference, but its seed could make or break its chance at making a run.
The top four teams in the Big Ten get a double bye in the tournament, and the Buckeyes will need to stay on the winning track, and get a little help along the way, in order to receive two de facto wins.
With the tournament set to begin in less than two weeks, here are five things OSU fans should know going forward.
1. The Buckeyes are tied for fourth, but not really
OSU is 10-6 in the Big Ten, and only three teams have a better conference record than that.
The problem for the Buckeyes is Iowa and Michigan State are both also 10-6 in the conference, and the Hawkeyes and Spartans are a combined 3-0 against OSU this season. That means if the season ended today, the Buckeyes would be the sixth seed in the tournament.
The sixth seed still gets to skip the first day of play on March 11, but that can be said for all teams sitting at 10th or better in the Big Ten. If the season ended before OSU’s final two games were played, the Buckeyes would take on the winner of the matchup between the 11-seed and the 14-seed.
That wouldn’t seem to be a daunting task, but it’s still an extra game, and consistency hasn’t exactly been the Buckeyes’ strong suit this season.
2. Road games have not been kind to OSU
Yes, the Buckeyes did annihilate the Nittany Lions, 75-55, at the Schottenstein Center earlier this season. But the Buckeyes are 18-1 at home.
OSU is just 3-7 away from Columbus, though, and the Buckeyes lost to Penn State the last time they traveled to State College, Pa.
Should the Buckeyes win when they face the Nittany Lions on Wednesday at 6 p.m.? Most definitely. Will they? Well, they sure haven’t given any team reason to fear when they hit the road.
A loss to Penn State would probably eliminate the Buckeyes from having a shot at a top-four spot in the tournament, making the road that much more difficult to travel.
3. Even if they do beat Penn State, the Buckeyes have No. 6 Wisconsin in waiting
OSU was fortunate not to take on Wisconsin twice this season, and especially not to take on the Badgers in Madison. But the Buckeyes still have to play the best team in the Big Ten, and it might be a make-or-break situation when Sunday rolls around.
The Badgers, led by 7-foot senior Frank Kaminsky, are 26-3 and arguably the second best team in the country. Kaminsky himself averages 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and might be the best player around.
And to put the icing on the cake, the only players OSU has to match up with Kaminsky in the size department probably shouldn’t be confident about slowing him down.
Yes, senior centers Amir Williams and Trey McDonald have their moments on defense, but the chances of them shutting down a taller and simply more talented player like Kaminsky, who shoots 42 percent from deep, are slim.
Penn State should be a win, but Wisconsin is the game the Buckeyes should really worry about.
4. Winning streaks have been hard to come by
In order to win the Big Ten Tournament, a team has to win at least three straight games, and if you’re worse than the fourth seed, you have to win four straight.
As of now, and most likely by the end of the regular season slate, the Buckeyes would have to win four straight. The last time they did that was from Dec. 6 to Dec. 17, and they played Colgate, High Point, Morehead State and North Carolina A&T.
OSU can beat any team in the Big Ten, except, perhaps, Wisconsin. But can the Buckeyes beat four teams in a row? They sure haven’t shown that yet.
5. OSU still has D’Angelo Russell
No matter what happens against Penn State or Wisconsin, or what Iowa and Michigan State do the rest of the way, no matter what seed the Buckeyes end up with, they still have their star freshman guard leading the way.
And that counts for a lot.
Perhaps after Kaminsky and Duke’s freshman center Jahlil Okafor, Russell is the best player in the country. He’s averaging 19 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Both stats lead the team.
Not bad for a 6-foot-5-inch freshman.
He’s the key to this team, he’s been the key all season and he’ll continue to be the key until he decides to leave for the NBA, no matter when that might be.
While one player can’t carry a team for an entire regular season — unless their name is LeBron James — one player can make all the difference in tournament play. So it’ll be an uphill battle, but to count out a team with Russell on the roster would be a mistake.