When Ohio State (13-8, 3-5 Big Ten) began conference play 0-4, it appeared the Buckeyes would be left in the dust as the rest of the conference would separate themselves from the pack. However, for some, it’s more difficult to leave the nest than it is for others.
The current state of the Big Ten has nine teams separated by just one game from fifth place to 13th. OSU is one of six teams at 3-5 and a game behind three teams at 4-4. Coach Thad Matta said he hasn’t been paying close attention.
“I’m more just like, ‘let’s just keep winning basketball games,’” he said. “In the end, I am aware of this, that (Saturday’s) game turns the halfway point. I think that there’s still so much that has to be done, but I guess that there is a log jam or whatever. But we’ll see how it plays out.”
Whether he realizes the traffic in the heart of the Big Ten standings or not, Matta is well aware the Buckeyes can’t afford a stumble on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes (11-10, 3-5 Big Ten) who are also fighting for relevance in the arduous Big Ten.
The Buckeyes have done themselves a favor by beating Michigan State and, most recently, Minnesota at home — two teams currently projected in the NCAA tournament according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Three weeks ago, OSU looked totally overmatched against conference competition, giving reason to believe that the season could be the worst finish in the Big Ten in Matta’s tenure. Since then, OSU has gone 3-1 against three teams who are in strong consideration for at-large bids come March.
But what was absent in all of that talk was the fact that two of OSU’s five conference losses have come by a combined total of three points and the team has played through the third-toughest Big Ten schedule to date. That’s just a couple reasons why Matta has been telling the players that the season isn’t over and there’s still plenty to play for after what was a bleak beginning.
“You know, we’re not out of this yet,” junior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “It’s a tight race. Anything can happen. We just got to go out there every game we play and try to win and the rest will take care of itself.”
Iowa is eerily similar to OSU thus far. The Hawkeyes have the second toughest conference strength of schedule, behind Illinois, and have performed well at home, but poorly on the road. All three conference wins for coach Fran McCaffery have come at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, including a victory over then-No. 17 Purdue.
Like Iowa, the Buckeyes haven’t performed well away from home. OSU is shooting roughly 44 percent from the field on the road compared to better than 47 percent on its home floor. Likewise, Iowa is six percent worse shooting away from home. The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes also have both been blown out on the road to two teams at the top of the conference — Wisconsin and Northwestern, respectively.
The Buckeyes have struggled with performing well from the tip on the road. Against Minnesota, OSU led by as much as 17 in the first half, which is the opposite of what usually happens away from Columbus. OSU has seen first-half deficits of 18 at Minnesota, 18 at Wisconsin and 12 at Nebraska.
“I don’t know why that is,” freshman forward Andre Wesson said. “We definitely got to fix that because that definitely can’t happen again. We got to continue to do what we did, just build on what we did against Minnesota.”
Regardless of the trend so far this season, OSU has to break its spell and find a way to capture a win at Iowa to avoid falling behind the ball in the Big Ten.
“Where we’re at right now, our room for error is very tight,” Tate said. “Going in there and we’re going to give it the best we got and build on this last game.”