The Buckeyes took their first step towards trying to claim the 2009-2010 Big Ten hoops title with their win last night at Indiana. The victory put the Buckeyes into a tie for first place, along with Michigan State and Illinois, but the stretch run will certainly be the determinate to this season's fate.
Evan Turner has been the engine that makes the Buckeye train go all season and that certainly will not change anytime soon. He hasn't been alone of late though, as The Villian has gotten some help from sophomore William Buford. Buford, who started off the season with a rusty jump shot and a Houdini-like ability to disappear on the defensive side of the floor, has turned it on in the second half of the season, averaging just over 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in 34.8 minutes over his last eight games.
Throw in the stellar defensive play of Dallas Lauderdale, the ever-growing tenacity of David Lighty, the occasionally appearing big stroke three-pointer from Jon Diebler, and the quality minutes we have seen off the bench from Kyle Madsen of late, and the Buckeyes look primed to actually be able to make a run at this thing. The path will not be easy though as a second match-up with Purdue, a road contest at Michigan State, two games against the Illini, and games at Penn State and home against Michigan still remain left to play. Let's take a look at each these games and give you our predictions of how things will finish out.
February 14 at Illinois
This game will be a big one for both teams as the Illini and the Bucks are fighting to stay on top of the conference standings. No love will be lost on Valentine's Day as this contest could be the key game in the Big Ten race, at least for this weekend. Former high school teammates Evan Turner and Demetri McCamey will go at it all game long and I think this one will be a barn burner. Illinois has the advantage on the inside, yet the Buckeyes' guard play is far superior to that of Bruce Weber's squad. The environment will be otugh to play in and this is normally your typical OSU folly, but I think when it matters most Turner will come through. Buckeyes win 64-58.
February 17 vs Purdue
If you don't think the Boilermakers are going to try and get revenge on the Buckeyes for their shocking upset in West Lafeyette last month, then you must be living in a box. Robbie Hummel was too much to handle in the first half as he was en fuego from beyond the arc, but the Buckeyes slowly were able to grind the lead down and Evan Turner took over, putting himself back into the National Player of the Year picture last time these two met. Coming off a big win in East Lansing, Matt Painter's team can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the Buckeyes, who will be coming off a shorter rest after a tough game in Champaign, will just fall short. Purdue wins 71-63, dropping OSU to 10-4 in conference play.
February 20 at Michigan State
The good news is the Buckeyes only play Sparty once. The bad news is that it's an away game following two extremely tough and important games. Consider this three game stretch equivalent to November for the Buckeye football squad and be happy to come out of this alive with two wins. Michigan State can do it all from their guard play lead by Kalin Lucas to their wing game with Raymar Morgan to their inside game with Draymond Green and Delvon Roe. This team always gives OSU problems and Thad Matta couldn't be catching them at a worse time. I'd love to think Evan Turner can control the game, but MSU is just too talented and too deep. Sparty takes this one 72-60, and OSU hobbles to a 10-5 mark, falling further behind their quest to win the title.
February 24 at Penn State
Another road game, but this time the opponent is not as fiesty. Penn State is in the cellar of the conference and looks like they are about to pack it in. The Talor Battle enigma has apparently been solved, and this is the type of game Turner and Buford can go absolutely bonkers on. Even Diebler might put up 15+ points, as the Buckeyes sail to an easy 68-54 win in Happy Valley, which, by the way, isn't looking too happy these days.
February 27 vs Michigan
If you thought Purdue wants revenge against OSU, then wait till you see ET flash his stuff against the team up north at the end of the month. Turner was forced to sit the first game out against the Blue, as he nursed his back injury, but that is not the case anymore. Michigan currently is hovering around .500 and their NIT hopes could be decimated when they visit VCA. The Buckeyes get all they want and improve to 12-5 in the conference with a 74-66 win over the Fighting Manny Harris's.
March 2 vs Illinois
The Buckeyes will try to close out the season with a win in a game that will either give them hope for the conference title or improve their seeding in the Big Ten tourny the following week. I think Illinois is a team that will give OSU trouble because of their inside game, but I just think Evan Turner is too good to let this team lose to the Orange Crush, no matter where the game is. We predicted a six point win the first time out, but the home crowd gives the Bucks some more comfort, as they improve to 13-5 with a 69-58 victory in the Schott.
The Buckeyes will start this run strong with last night's win over Indiana and a victory on the road over Illinois and will end it strong with three straight victories over Penn State, Michigan, and Illinois. It is the two game sitnt between, at home against Purdue and on the road against Michigan State, that will ultimately seal the fate of the team this season. If the Bucks can find a way to split those two games, I like their chances. If not, they'll be looking at a three or four seed come the Big Ten Tournament in Conseco Fieldhouse a week after the regular season ends.
How do you think the final stretch will end? Do the Bucks have enough to get the job done or will Evan Turner wear down after carrying the team all season?