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Men’s basketball: Buckeyes need accountability more than ever to stay afloat in Big Ten and NCAA tournament picture

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Ohio State coach Thad Matta prepares to address team at a media timeout against Purdue on Jan. 1, 2017 at the Jerome Schottenstein Center. OSU lost 76-75. Credit: Giustino Bovenzi | Lantern Senior Reporter

They said it all offseason.

The eight returning members of the Ohio State men’s basketball team that were on the 2015-16 roster said they didn’t want that taste again. That taste of missing out on the NCAA tournament for just the second time in coach Thad Matta’s tenure, then losing in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. Now they’re at a juncture.

The Buckeyes sit at 10-5 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten, an 0-3 record against the Associated Press Top 25 and a loss to low mid-major Florida Atlantic who is 4-9 with two wins against non-Division I opponents.

To make matters worse, OSU will have to play the rest of the season without arguably the team’s best all-around player, junior forward Keita Bates-Diop.

Still, it gets worse.

The Buckeyes are staring at the very real possibility of dropping to 0-5 to start league play with matchups at Minnesota, at No. 13 Wisconsin and Michigan State. The last time OSU started the Big Ten season with five losses was 1997-98 when the Scarlet and Gray finished 8-22.

“That’s why you take it one game at a time, “ Matta said. “I know when the schedule came out, I looked at it and said, ‘Uh oh.’ By the same token, we got to get ourselves ready to go in Minneapolis and obviously Minnesota is playing great basketball right now.”

Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers are the darling of the Big Ten this season. After beating a solid Northwestern team on the road on Thursday night, Minnesota will welcome the Buckeyes into Williams Arena on Sunday night at 14-2 and 2-1 in the Big Ten.

Following OSU’s 76-75 loss to Purdue on Thursday, several players were not shy about showing emotion on the court or in the postgame press conference. Junior forward Jae’Sean Tate and senior forward Marc Loving were holding back tears as they tried to put a finger on why they keep coming up short in games that can totally change the complexion of the season.

Last season, OSU had a signature win against Kentucky before conference play, but then waited too long to capture its next one against another top-10 opponent in Iowa just two games before the Big Ten tournament. In 2016-17, OSU has lost to No. 6 Virginia by two, No. 20 Virginia by two and were even within arms reach against No. 2 UCLA. Any one of those games, including a five-point loss at Illinois on New Year’s Day, and the Buckeyes wouldn’t be in the conundrum they currently find themselves.

“Nobody in the Big Ten is going to go undefeated because it’s such a tough conference,” Tate said. “We just have to turn this train around.”

OSU didn’t look impressive in several of its nonconference games earlier in the year, which is another piece to the puzzle Matta and the players are still trying to solve 15 games into the season. After a two-point win against UNC Asheville on Dec. 22, Matta said that his team didn’t know how to handle adversity.

On Thursday against Purdue, Tate and OSU’s leading rebounder, redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson, sat the remaining three minutes and 37 seconds of the half in foul trouble and Purdue went on a 9-0 run. The Buckeyes were down by as much as 10, but battled back with a 12-2 run to tie the game at 55. Each time Purdue went on a run, OSU came back with a run of its own to have a chance to win at the end.

Loving and Tate each took accountability after the game for a few plays that they individually could have executed better that might have changed the scope of the game. For now, the Buckeyes have to make due with what they are — a team that needs to perform at its best without one of its top players in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.

“Accountability is one of the greatest attributes an individual can have,” Matta said. “We have to be accountable. Coaches have to be accountable, players have to be accountable. It is what it is and guys are going to have to man down, man up.”

Matta equated the loss of Bates-Diop to when all-around star David Lighty broke his foot in the 2008-09 season and a sophomore by the name of Evan Turner became the conference’s leading scorer, propelling OSU into the conference championship game and the NCAA tournament. Will Matta get that same out-of-nowhere performance? Probably not, but someone or several guys will need to step up if OSU is to remain relevant in the Big Ten and the eyes of the committee.

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