Since early November, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has been trudging through a 31-game swamp of a regular season, its caliber of play seemingly as unpredictable as the Ohio weather.
The Buckeyes’ future went from being grayscale amid an early three-game losing skid to technicolor after they stunned then-No. 4 Kentucky before fading fast into an unidentifiable palette during conference play.
Yet now the regular season, and all its confusion, has concluded, and seventh-seeded OSU (19-12, 11-7) has been allotted a chance to start over Thursday in the Big Ten tournament against 10th-seeded Penn State.
The game, which is scheduled to tip off at 6:30 p.m. in Indianapolis, is the epitome of a make-or-break situation for the Buckeyes. OSU not only needs a victory to advance in the tournament, but a first-round exit would, effectively, end all its chances of an NCAA tournament berth.
“I think that mostly our guys have a pretty good understanding that you’re entering into a tournament that if you don’t win, you go home,” OSU coach Thad Matta said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “The level should be raised in terms of how we want to play and how we want to compete.”
OSU enters the conference tournament on the heels of two double-digit losses to now-second-ranked Michigan State with a victory over then-No. 8 Iowa sandwiched in between.
The Nittany Lions (16-15, 7-11) wander into the Bankers Life Fieldhouse winners of five of their last eight games, headlined by wins over eventual regular-season conference champion Indiana and then-No. 4 Iowa.
On Jan. 25 in Columbus, the two teams met for the lone regular-season matchup, which OSU won by 20 points. But in tournament play, putting too much weight on previous meetings can be dangerous, especially since the two teams are playing differently now.
“They’re obviously a much better basketball team than when we played them a month ago, and our guys will be well aware of that from film,” Matta said.
Added Penn State coach Pat Chambers: “We’re really two different teams … it should be an interesting matchup.”
Burden of youth
The Buckeyes are nearly bereft of upperclassmen, with junior forward Marc Loving being the sole one. That inexperience hurt them during the regular season, and Matta said he understands it might play a role again Thursday.
Of the 10 players on OSU’s active roster, seven have yet to log a minute in a Big Ten tournament. The three who have are Loving, sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop and redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams.
To compensate, the coach said pristine performances in practice leading up to Thursday’s matchup are of heavy emphasis.
“We want to have the best practice we’ve had all year and be as good as we can possibly be going into this tournament,” he said.
Who will take Taylor?
In the first meeting, both teams struggled at times but particularly, Nittany Lion senior Brandon Taylor had a tough time on that wintery evening.
The forward struggled to engineer anything offensively, finishing the night with 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting and two rebounds in 36 minutes. In the 27 games this season in which Taylor logged north of 20 minutes, his 11-point outing against the Buckeyes was tied for his second-lowest scoring total.
Singling out one cause for the woes wouldn’t be fair, but the suffocating defense that OSU sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate supplied certainly trammeled Taylor.
On Thursday, however, keeping Penn State’s leading scorer in check won’t be as easy as assigning Tate to follow Taylor wherever he goes. That is, of course, because Tate is out for the season after having shoulder surgery on Feb. 26.
It’s a prime example of why regular-season games can’t be too much of the focus entering tournament time. Both teams are now playing with a different deck than they were in Columbus.
The Buckeyes certainly have no shortage of wing defenders — freshman forward Mickey Mitchell, Bates-Diop and Loving, to name a few — but all pale in comparison to Tate on the defensive end.
Taylor is the type of player who “can get going at any given moment,” Matta said, and what makes slowing him down laborious is the fact that other perimeter players, such as sophomore guard Shep Garner, can score the basketball, too.
Garner was hobbled by an ankle injury in the January, but he’s been hot as of late. In his past five games, he’s averaging 19.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest.
His play, coupled with the fact that Taylor won’t have to deal with Tate’s peskiness, present an interesting challenge for the Buckeyes.
“Obviously, on Thursday we’re going to have to have the same type of effort (from the first meeting), same type of focus of not letting those guys get going,” Matta said.
The winner of Thursday’s game will advance to take on No. 2 seed Michigan State. That game is set for Friday at 6:30 p.m.