As the Ohio State men’s basketball team walked off the court on Saturday following its 96-92 home loss to Indiana, the Buckeyes knew they would play on the first day of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament in Washington D.C.
It’s a distinction reserved for the four worst teams in the conference. But it’s not a death sentence.
The 11th-seeded Buckeyes (17-14, 7-11 Big Ten) will play 14th-seeded Rutgers on Wednesday at the Verizon Center at 7 p.m. OSU beat the Scarlet Knights 70-64 on Feb. 8 in Columbus.
With a win, OSU will move on to a Thursday game against sixth-seeded Northwestern, who beat the Buckeyes by two in the team’s only matchup this season. If OSU is lucky enough to move past the Wildcats, No. 3 Maryland awaits in the quarterfinals — a team that battled with the Buckeyes until the final horn.
There’s no way to sugarcoat OSU’s performance this season. For a team that entered the season after missing the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes continued to deliver uninspiring performances with inconsistent effort en route to a bottom-four finish in the conference.
That the Buckeyes have a chance to make a run in the tournament is more about the quality of the league than it is their talent.
The Big Ten boasts just three teams in the Associated Press Top 25 — No. 13 Purdue, No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 25 Maryland — heading into the conference tournament. And for the first time since the 2002-2003 season, the Big Ten doesn’t have a single team in the top 10. In that span, the Big Ten had at least two teams in the top 10 on seven occasions.
No. 1 seed Purdue nearly lost to OSU in early January, before winning 76-75. The bottom-four teams in the conference tournament have a combined six wins against the top four seeds; OSU owns two of those against Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Another reason not to count out OSU from making a tournament run is coach Thad Matta. Winner of four Big Ten tournament championships and five regular-season Big Ten titles, Matta has been difficult to beat in March. Granted, OSU has not been to the tournament semifinals since the 2014 season — and it’s unlikely the Buckeyes make it there this year — but there are no clear-cut favorites as compared with those in previous years.
Iowa, Michigan or Indiana as the No. 7, 8 and 10 seeds, respectively, have just as much of a shot at the tournament crown as the top seeds in Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Iowa is entering the tournament having won four straight games, two of which were against Wisconsin and Maryland. Fourth seed Minnesota has won eight of its last nine, and sixth seed Northwestern has lost six of its last nine.
The Buckeyes have said all season that their focus is one game at a time, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult not to envision chaos at the 2017 Big Ten tournament.