Ohio State had no choice. It simply had to beat Northwestern Sunday.
In the Big Ten, the chance to play a 6-13 Wildcat team is the closest thing to a “gimme” the Buckeyes will get the rest of the way.
Well, that and Nebraska: the only teams beneath Ohio State in the conference standings and the only teams the Buckeyes have beaten since Christmas.
The Buckeyes’ 71-59 victory in Evanston, Illinois, over the weekend was no cause for over-celebratory exuberance –– though it seems Ohio State wins are coming fewer and farther between –– because it was supposed to happen.
Losing the game would have been a stronger indication about the team’s status than winning, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing positive the Buckeyes can take away.
After a heart-wrenching three-point loss to Minnesota Thursday, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann made several references –– even if ambiguous –– to the “steps forward” the team took in the contest.
It may sound disheartening that the coach of the one-time No. 2 team in the country would be discussing silver linings in a loss to a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten opponent six weeks later, but Holtmann’s assessment seems to be holding up in the short term.
For the first time during Ohio State’s slump –– save a blowout win against Nebraska –– the Buckeyes’ supporting cast clicked on offense for most of the Minnesota matchup.
It wasn’t his teammates’ output, but the near nullification of junior forward Kaleb Wesson’s offensive game in the second-lowest scoring performance of his career that likely sabotaged Ohio State’s chance at a win.
The team shot better than 51 percent without him, and redshirt junior guard CJ Walker, sophomore guard Duane Washington and junior forward Kyle Young all outscored their season averages.
However, one issue that has plagued the Buckeyes all season was once again underscored in the game’s final minutes.
While Minnesota redshirt sophomore guard Marcus Carr was able to conjure magic off the dribble to score the final five points of the game, it became evident once again that the Buckeyes have no such equivalent on their roster.
Though officiating made it increasingly difficult to feed Kaleb Wesson in the low post at the end of games, his sparing late-game looks have been misfires from 3.
No Ohio State guard, nor any Buckeye except Young, could score a point in the final six minutes of the game.
Instead, it was three missed shots from Washington, who all too often plays the role of Ohio State’s go-to option late despite diminishing returns, and two 3-point misses from Kaleb Wesson.
It was that area in which Holtmann might have felt the Buckeyes finally took a step toward improving against Northwestern.
Kaleb Wesson turned in another below-average performance Sunday, but he wasn’t even on the court in the game’s deciding minutes due to foul trouble.
The Buckeye bench outscored the starters 39-32 behind 17 points from freshman guard D.J. Carton, and nearly every guard made a play late to seal the win.
Carton scored four straight, including a tip-in on a top-shelf lob from Washington to double a four-point lead with five minutes to go.
The athletic freshman paid it forward with a dish to Walker for an open 3 the next possession, and Walker found Washington for another triple on the following trip down.
The two-minute stretch that won Ohio State the game was emblematic of the offensive decision-making and ability to hit an open, much-needed shot that the Buckeyes have lacked in January.
Oh, and there was a Justin Ahrens sighting.
The sophomore forward outscored his past seven performances combined with a season-high 12 points on four 3-pointers Sunday –– the first reminder of his potential since a 29-point outburst 11 months ago.
The Buckeyes are no longer red hot — that much has been established, confirmed and run into the ground throughout the past five weeks. But they may no longer be ice cold either.
Though likely baby-sized, the incremental steps Ohio State has taken forward this past week might prove the Buckeyes are trending back toward their mean –– the identity on which spectators have been hard-pressed to place a finger.