The Ohio State men’s basketball team has surprised everyone in the 2017-18 season. Before the year began, finishing 13th in the Big Ten seemed to closer to the expectation than anything.
Entering the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes are 13th — in the nation. They begin the conference tournament Thursday as the No. 2 seed.
They would have gone in as the top seed had it not been for Penn State, the No. 7 seed in the tournament. The Nittany Lions delivered the Buckeyes both two of Ohio State’s three Big Ten losses during the regular season.
“I don’t have to review our struggles with Penn State,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Wednesday.
Should Ohio State find a way past Penn State, it will be facing off against No. 8 Purdue, the third seed in the tournament. Beyond that, in the championship round of the tournament, it could face No. 2 Michigan State, the regular-season conference champion and top seed in the tournament.
There is not necessarily a ton of pressure on the Buckeyes to win the tournament. Sitting at 24-7 overall and 15-3 in conference play, they have essentially locked up an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament and don’t need the automatic bid that comes with winning the Big Ten tournament.
Penn State, however, is not necessarily in the same position. Though it appears likely the Nittany Lions will land an at-large bid, the 20-13 regular-season record and 9-9 conference record in a down year for the Big Ten could use additional wins to punch their ticket into March Madness.
Though Holtmann believes Penn State is a tournament team already, he said he knows teams that viewed as bubble teams could have added motivation to excel in the conference tourney given the necessity to come away with the win to keep national championship hopes alive.
Last season, he led his No. 2-seeded Butler team against No. 7-seeded Xavier and remembered the added motivation from the Musketeers.
“[Xavier] needed another quality win to get in [the NCAA Tournament] most people thought,” Holtmann said. “So there was certainly a level of urgency I think on both of our ends, but you could see it with them for sure because I think they were right on that bubble.”
Adding to the challenge of playing Penn State is that the Nittany Lions are fresh off a win Thursday against Northwestern, while the Buckeyes have not played in a game since Feb. 23. The Buckeyes have had more time to rest, but they have not known who to prepare for and Holtmann said the team balanced its practice for both teams.
Holtmann said that while his team might be more well-rested, Penn State will come in more game-ready.
“I do think there’s a little bit of an advantage when you can play, have a win under your belt there,” Holtmann said. “So we’ll need to be ready from the jump because that team will have won a game and got a little bit of momentum the night before, so I think you’ve got to be ready for that.”
If the Buckeyes are able to beat the Nittany Lions for the first time all season, the path remains challenging. Presumably, they will face Purdue and then Michigan State. The Buckeyes beat both teams in the only two matchups between the teams believed to be the conference’s best, but the Buckeyes would enter neither as the favorite to win.
Purdue had just started the roughest part of its season when it lost to the Buckeyes, losing three straight to Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Boilermakers finished the season with three straight wins and only need to beat Rutgers, the lowest seed in the tournament, to advance to the semi-finals in a matchup against the winner of Ohio State vs. Purdue.
Michigan State stumbled against Ohio State but rebounded by winning its final 14 games of the season. The Spartans would need to beat ninth-seeded Wisconsin and the winner of the matchup between No. 5 Michigan and No. 4 Nebraska.
The team understandably has said it will not look any further than its first game. Especially now that the opponent is Penn State, the Buckeyes need to be completely ready to face a team that dominated them in the last outing.
At the beginning of the year, Ohio State would have been expected to enter the Big Ten tournament, at the very best, in that position. A bubble team that needed some wins to get into the NCAA Tournament. It will not be in that position, and it will not even be an underdog for at least its first matchup against Penn State.
Holtmann said he needs his team to enter the tournament with a balance of both an underdog and confident mentality, knowing that it could face a mixture of teams that Ohio State might be favored against and others where the opponents will be favored.
“I talked to people all the time that question if this group is going to be a quick out in both tournaments because of our lack of this or our lack of that,” Holtmann said. “Hopefully our guys will play with the necessary chip that’s required and if not, it’s going to show in our play.”