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Tuesday Take: Ohio State breathing but not exhaling after first Big Ten win

OSU sophomore guard C.J. Jackson directs the offense against Michigan State on Jan. 15 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU won 72-67. Credit: Ashley Nelson | Sports Director

Teams can often be characterized by the way they perform when their backs are up against the wall. Ones that succeed are often the ones that compete for championships. The others are either pretenders or just flat out not good. Too often in the last two seasons, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has been in these situations. Being 0-4 to start Big Ten play was one of those.

On Sunday, the Buckeyes (11-7, 1-4) defeated Michigan State (12-7, 4-2) at the Schottenstein Center 72-67 to avoid a disastrous 0-5 start to conference play. OSU still has its back against the wall, but the opposite wall has ceased closing in, for now.

Coach Thad Matta saw the conference schedule at the beginning of the season and knew that the possibility of a slow start was there. With the win, his team can finally breathe, but it can’t relax.

“It’s a good feeling. We haven’t won since Dec. 22,” sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle said. “(Sunday), we showed we can play through adversity and compete. That’s what we are going to have to do throughout the rest of the Big Ten season.”

An 0-5 start in the Big Ten would have likely been a death sentence for OSU, in terms of having any chance of competing to finish at the top of the conference or make the NCAA tournament. A 1-4 beginning to conference play put the team behind the ball. There’s no questioning that. But it’s something the team can play with.

To date, the Buckeyes have played the most difficult conference schedule — even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo agreed with that. Had OSU came out to a strong start to conference play — say, 3-2 — the Buckeyes would be talked about as a sleeping giant that could possibly compete for a league title in March. But that’s not the reality and OSU has to live with that.

The reality is the Buckeyes beat a Michigan State team — who should be playing its best basketball come March — without one of their most versatile scorers and skilled defenders in junior forward Keita Bates-Diop. They proved they can compete, which OSU didn’t do in its previous game on Thursday night at Wisconsin.

“The other night when Wisconsin caught fire with 11 minutes to go in the first half, we caved a little bit,” Matta said. “But I thought (Sunday) they did a great job. I thought our bench did a great job in terms of what they brought us.”

OSU started its conference schedule with three games on the road and one at home. Those road games were at Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The home matchup was against Big Ten contender Purdue, which could have gone either way.

Izzo, who has coached for 22 seasons in the Big Ten, knows all too well how difficult the Buckeyes schedule has been to date.

“How many teams go to Minnesota and Wisconsin and win?” he said after Sunday’s game.

When the final whistle sounded to make OSU’s win over the Spartans official, the bench cleared and stormed the five on the court in celebration. The weight of achieving that first conference win of the 2016-17 season had been lifted off their shoulders.

When they walked into the gym on Monday, the reality hit again. There are 13 more games on the conference schedule and they go on the road again to Nebraska on Wednesday. The Huskers took them to overtime last year and OSU prevailed.

OSU’s win over Michigan State was unpredictable, but believable. The Buckeyes have become very hard to predict on a nightly basis and the Big Ten Conference is partly to blame for that. The Scarlet and Gray have eight games remaining against the top half of the league, as it stands after Monday.

The road is difficult, but also has several opportunities for key wins before OSU is judged by the tournament selection committee in March. However, that bridge will be crossed when it comes. Before then, OSU still has plenty of ground to make up and still no room for error. Yet, the Buckeyes gave themselves some much-needed oxygen before being suffocated by the depth of the league.

“We just keep working. As I tell the coaches, I tell the players, ‘look, just keep playing,’” Matta said. “We got dealt a blow a couple weeks ago losing Keita. We’ve had a tough go. There’s a couple teams that wouldn’t be 0-4 going into (Sunday’s) game, but there’s probably some that would be. I told our guys the other day, I was 10-9 at Xavier then four week weeks later we were playing in the Elite Eight to go to the Final Four. Just keep fighting, man. Keep fighting.”

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