ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The path to a Big Ten championship always seems to go through Michigan for Ohio State. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 teams suffered losses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that ultimately dashed any outright regular-season conference title hopes.
The same likely happened Sunday at the Crisler Center.
After vanquishing the Wolverines in a 20-point comeback at home on Dec. 4, the eighth-ranked Buckeyes didn’t have the same formula for a victory against their rival the second time around, losing 74-62 to No. 20 Michigan, therefore falling a game behind first-place Michigan State in the Big Ten standings.
In October, it isn’t likely many people predicted back-to-back road games against Penn State and Michigan in February to be the most challenging stretch of conference play for the Buckeyes. It was equally difficult at the time to foresee the position in which the team was in coming into this stretch — leading the Big Ten with four games to play.
However small those odds were, that was Ohio State’s reality. But it has proved a burden for one of college basketball’s biggest surprise teams of the season.
“If you’re a college player and you go into a couple games on the road against good teams, and you expect it to be easy, or you expect not to deal with some adversity — we haven’t had a whole lot of that through the Big Ten season, but everybody goes through that,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “This is what we’ve signed up for. That’s what they signed up for when they signed up to play in the Big Ten. This is what we signed up for to coach in.”
Back-to-back, double-digit losses in the home stretch of the season has put Ohio State in a position where winning its final games against Rutgers and at Indiana would not be enough to win the outright conference crown without a pair of losses from the Spartans and a loss by Purdue.
Holtmann continued to stay quiet about the team’s prospects of winning the conference following his team’s latest defeat. But it’s clear there have to be adjustments moving forward when opponents get their second or third look at an Ohio State team that doesn’t overwhelm any team with athleticism, size or shooting.
“If this beats us down, shame on us,” Holtmann added. “We’ve had a heck of a start and we got to figure out a way to make steps toward playing better.”
Michigan is a sound defensive team with enough offense to possibly win the conference tournament in two weeks in New York, as well as make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And Penn State has multiple NBA-caliber players, including potential Big Ten Player of the Year Tony Carr, and a legitimate shot to sneak into the field of 68 in March.
Those losses are explainable, but they hurt nonetheless.
“Like I said last [game] when we played Penn State, we’re either going to learn from it or it’s going to keep happening, and tonight it did,” senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “They came out more physical. They made the right plays and they got the win. It’s the same thing. We got to learn from this one.”
Ohio State last swept Michigan in the regular season in the 2010-11 season, which featured arguably the best team the program has ever had and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. This season, everything had been going right for the Buckeyes. To think they were possibly about to achieve something that hadn’t been done since that team would’ve added to the lunacy of trying to explain this team’s successes.
But there is a feeling that reality is now setting in for Ohio State.
Teams are beginning to pressure junior C.J. Jackson and redshirt senior Andrew Dakich at point guard, a known weakness for the Buckeyes. With the exception of Tate, Holtmann said the team is struggling to play through physicality in the half-court offense, which starts with Big Ten Player of the Year contender Keita Bates-Diop, who has shot 9-of-28 from the field the past two games.
It’s not the end of the road for Ohio State. It remains one of the best teams in the conference and deserving of a strong seed in the NCAA Tournament, but this stretch has been realized as a potential killer to a regular-season title.
“We got to continue to have the same mindset,” Tate said. “Hope it works out. If it don’t, it doesn’t. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to look at the game in front of us.”