The door to the NCAA tournament remains ajar for the Ohio State men’s basketball team after grinding out a road win over Nebraska on Saturday, but it could be slammed shut if things don’t go well Tuesday night.
That’s when the Buckeyes (18-10, 10-5) are set to welcome sixth-ranked Michigan State (22-5, 9-5) to the Schottenstein Center for a must-win matchup amid OSU’s quest to salvage a seemingly lost year after a tumultuous beginning.
“Every game is critical,” sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop said. “You don’t go into a game thinking, ‘We can afford to lose this game,’ or anything like that. We’re a very confident team and we feel like we have a chance to beat anybody when we’re on our A-game.”
Putting forth their “A-game” is something that hasn’t always been easy for the youthful Buckeyes. The inconsistency that has stained their season has been heavily discussed. It’s hard to have a conversation about this team without mentioning how up and down its season has been.
Yet, OSU coach Thad Matta said he has seen his team developing, even if sometimes his players revert to their old ways, namely stagnant offensive sets and high volumes of turnovers.
“We were treading water late November, early season. I like the progress that this team has made,” he said, later adding, “We’ve won some basketball games where earlier I don’t think we could’ve won those games.”
Why a win matters
On the surface, OSU’s 10 wins in the Big Ten appears to be an impressive mark, but a deeper inquiry reveals that only one of them has come against a team with a conference record .500 or above — a Feb. 16 victory over Michigan.
Other than that lone game, the Buckeyes have bolstered their resume by beating teams they should beat. OSU needs a marquee win within its conference, hence why Tuesday’s game is paramount.
Frankly, two wins over Rutgers, and victories versus Penn State and Minnesota aren’t what the selection committee will use to determine if the Buckeyes belong in the Big Dance.
Beating the Spartans wouldn’t punch their ticket — in fact, far from it — but a late-season victory over a top 10 team will cause the committee to start taking notes.
Players are aware that they could send a message if they pull off the upset. All season long, the Scarlet and Gray have “had to go longer, go harder than in the past,” Matta said.
After all that extra effort to tighten up loose screws, Bates-Diop said the country would finally be able to see if the Buckeyes are able to “compete with a team of their caliber.”
They have the confidence to make it happen, he said, but avoiding a pitiful start like against Nebraska is of utmost importance.
On Saturday, OSU had only two points at the 11:36 mark in the first half. That slow of a start might result in an insurmountable deficit versus the Spartans.
“We gotta have the right mindset from the beginning to even be competitive in a situation like this,” Bates-Diop said.
The situation that Bates-Diop was referring to is a primetime game against a team that, when healthy, “is as good as anybody,” Matta said.
Senior guard Denzel Valentine is the catalyst of it all for coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans. The 6-foot-5 Lansing, Michigan, native is one of the country’s premier talents, as many experts have him in the discussion for player of the year.
The high praise stems from Valentine’s ability to leave his fingerprint on nearly every aspect of the game. He leads the Big Ten in scoring per game, with 19.7, and assists, dishing out 7.3 a night.
He’s also second on the team in 3-point percentage, connecting on 44.6 percent of his attempts, and rebounding, averaging 7.7 per contest.
Within a one-minute sequence, Matta compared him to two of his former players, Evan Turner and D’Angelo Russell, for the seemingly infinite ways he impacts the game.
“He does everything,” Matta said.
As a team, the Spartans are third in the conference in field-goal percentage, making just below 50 percent of their attempts. But they are the top 3-point shooting team, aided by Valentine and fellow senior guard — and high school teammate — Bryn Forbes, who connects on a conference-leading 48 percent of his 3-pointers.
Michigan State’s ability to shoot the basketball with such success is “alarming,” Matta said.
Even though OSU will be playing host to one of the nation’s top teams, Matta said the “focus has to be on us.”
“I just want to go out and play well (Tuesday) night,” he said.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the road doesn’t get any easier following Tuesday’s tough test. Their next game is set to come against No. 8 Iowa (20-6, 11-3) on Sunday at home.
Tipoff against the Hawkeyes is slated for 4 p.m.