CHICAGO — With 10:02 to go in the game down 56-46, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann stood courtside with his arms crossed.
He looked toward his bench, saw sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson sitting and watching, already with four fouls to his name. He looked out onto the court to see redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods and senior guard C.J. Jackson, who combined for seven fouls at the end of regulation.
He looked out on the court at Michigan State.
Junior guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston had already heated up, erasing his two-point start in the first 18 minutes of the game with six points in the final two minutes of the first half. Even with junior forward Nick Ward back in the rotation, sophomore Xavier Tillman used his size as the one of two guys for Wesson and Ohio State sophomore forward Kyle Young to focus on.
Holtmann saw what his team has never truly had in any of the three matchups against the Spartans: depth.
Even without the depth of the Spartans, the Buckeyes found a way to remain close in each of their three matchups against what Holtmann considers to be the best conference opponent he has seen in his two seasons as head coach.
Holtmann said he feels Ohio State matches up better with Michigan State than other teams in the league, giving his team an advantage and ability to keep the score close, finding halftime leads in each of the first two games against the Spartans.
But the storyline has remained the same for the Buckeyes in each of these matchups against the Spartans.
“In the first half, we play them tight in the post and we stay at it and then we have spurts in the second half where we drop off,” Wesson said. “With a good team like Michigan State, a top-10 team in the country, you can’t have a drop off. That’s when they take advantage of the mistakes we make.”
But leaving the court at the United Center, coming off its third loss in three games against the No. 6 team in the country, Ohio State had confidence.
Maybe it was the run.
Trailing by 21 points with 4:21 left in the game, Woods hit a jumper, beginning a 17-0 run that may have been too late, but followed a recent trend, one Ohio State saw late in the second half of its final regular season game against Wisconsin.
“Our whole motto is not giving up and Duane, Luther, Musa, Dre, all those guys that were out there were still playing hard and not giving up,” Woods said.
A 21-point drubbing turned into a seven-point loss, the closest of the season between Ohio State and Michigan State. Instead of leaving the court with heads down, the players and coaching staff walked to the locker room quiet, but confident.
The Buckeyes knew what was likely coming next: the NCAA Tournament.
The general consensus was that Ohio State earned a spot in the Tournament after its second-round win against Indiana Thursday. But scoring 17 unanswered points against what many consider to be a Final Four contender may have secured it in the minds of the players.
“If they do, they do. If they don’t they don’t, but I feel like our body of work speaks for itself,” Wesson said. “We played hard throughout the year. I feel like anywhere we go, we will play hard.”
Wesson still stands by the comment he made after the team’s first loss to Michigan State on Jan. 5: when the team is at full strength, Ohio State can compete with anyone in the country.
Ohio State has two days before Selection Sunday to try and get to full strength and remedy the late-season fatigue that had a clear effect on the roster.
Moving forward, the Buckeyes’ focus should be on consistency, something it never had in its four games against Michigan State.
“We needed to make them work 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes, 38 minutes,” freshman guard Luther Muhammad said. “I feel like we always play hard for three-fourths of the game, but we just have to put a whole game together as a group.”
But after the Buckeyes’ 17-0 run at the end of the game, heading into the Tournament with a loss and some sort of momentum, Muhammad said Ohio State was heading in the right direction.