Thirty games are in the record books, and just one remains in the regular season for the Ohio State men’s basketball team.
Even after that large of a sample of the team, many questions still remain. It is unclear just how good or bad the Buckeyes really are, further muddled by an impressive 68-64 victory over then-No. 8 Iowa in their previous game.
That uncertainty has spilled over into the discussion OSU’s NCAA tournament possibilities. Not too long ago considered dead and buried barring a miraculous Big Ten tournament run, suddenly the Scarlet and Gray are back in the bubble watch in many experts’ eyes. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, for instance, has OSU (19-11, 11-6) as his third team narrowly missing the cut for an at-large bid.
Therefore, the Buckeyes’ regular-season finale at No. 2 Michigan State (25-5, 12-5) could very well present a do-or-die situation for their tournament hopes.
But don’t tell that to OSU coach Thad Matta, whose mind is not focused on a minute beyond the completion of Saturday’s game in East Lansing, Michigan.
“Regardless of the NCAA tournament or whatever it is, we’re going to have to play great basketball (Saturday),” Matta said.
Prior to beating Iowa last Sunday, the Buckeyes had their first crack at Michigan State in Columbus. That one did not go as they hoped, as 27 points from senior guard Bryn Forbes, many of which were registered in the second half, were key in pushing the Spartans to an 81-62 win.
“It was kind of a bad loss,” said OSU sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop. “It was close for a little while, but Forbes got hot and kind of put things away for us.”
Bates-Diop said getting another shot at the Spartans just 11 days after losing to them on OSU’s home court presents just as much motivation as the postseason ramifications attached to beating the high-profile opponent.
“Beating anybody on their home court is big, but especially them, after what they did to us, (it) would be even bigger,” he said. “And to have it as the last game of the season would be even better.”
The rematch against Michigan State is scheduled to tip off at noon on Saturday.
Beating Michigan State is a difficult enough task for any team, but when a sharpshooter like Forbes decides he isn’t going to miss, it becomes nearly impossible.
In addition to the 27 points and seven 3-pointers Forbes dropped on the Buckeyes on Feb. 23, the senior hit four 3-pointers against Penn State last Sunday before exploding for 11 triples in a 97-66 win over Rutgers on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to do a better job staying connected,” Matta said on dealing with Forbes. “Obviously he’s shooting the basketball at a level right now that’s as good as anyone in the country.”
The coach added that his team could’ve made things tougher for the guard in the first meeting.
“The shots we gave him in Game 1, I feel like we tried to shortcut some things,” he said.
So how do you stop someone who is shooting 51.5 percent from outside this season?
Bates-Diop said one solution is to trade good looks on the outside for open attacking lanes and seeing if Forbes can finish at the rim.
“The biggest thing is making him drive,” Bates-Diop said. “He loves to shoot threes obviously, but I don’t know how good he is at getting to the basket.”
Matta said part of Forbes’ danger is that the defense can’t key in too much on him because other players, such as senior guard Denzel Valentine, can do the damage instead. Valentine, a frontrunner for national player of the year, is averaging 19.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest.
Joining the crew
After sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate went down for the season with a shoulder injury prior to the first game against Michigan State, Matta elected to insert freshman forward Mickey Mitchell into the starting five.
Mitchell entered the lineup in the midst of a six-game scoreless streak. That stretched to seven against the Spartans.
But Matta stuck with the Plato, Texas, native versus Iowa and it paid off, as Mitchell had six points and seven rebounds in the win. Matta said that stat line couldn’t have been bigger for the rookie’s confidence.
“Getting some baskets the other night, some rebounds was validation for him like, ‘OK, I can do this,’” Matta said.
Collegiate basketball has been a tough adjustment at times for Mitchell, especially because he missed the first 11 games while being declared ineligible by the NCAA. Matta said he has been trying to stress to Mitchell to try to make things easier.
“We’re trying to get him to simplify things, tell him it’s OK to look at somebody that you’re passing to,” Matta said, referencing Mitchell’s propensity for no-look feeds.
Still, the coach said he thinks Mitchell is primed to give him some quality minutes against the Spartans and throughout the postseason.
“Mickey has shown to play some pretty good basketball for us, and I really believe he’s settling in to who he is,” Matta said.
After wrapping up the regular season in East Lansing, the Big Ten tournament sits next on the itinerary for the Buckeyes. However, with the congested standings, it is possible that as many as six teams could be tied for second place at 12-6, leading to some headaches for the bracket makers.
“I think at this point there’s not a whole lot we can do because the games sort of have to play out,” Matta said. “I don’t even know who else plays this weekend, but I think there’s a chance for a lot of movement.”
The Big Ten tournament is scheduled to begin Wednesday at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, with OSU’s first game coming on Thursday if it finishes fifth through eighth in the conference or Friday if it finishes second through fourth.