Ohio State’s long and winding road is nearing its end. Fear not, however – the postseason is right around the corner. One of the most competitive, wacky and downright hectic Big Ten basketball regular seasons will come to a close on Sunday.
And the final week could be the most drama-filled seven days of them all. Five teams still have a chance to win the conference, with each team playing one of the other five during the week. On Sunday afternoon, a champion – or co-champions – will experience more relief than elation. One thing won’t be open for interpretation: they will have earned it.
Indiana’s win over Iowa on Saturday combined with Sunday’s March Madness already assured at least a share for the Hoosiers, their first conference championship in more than a decade.
The final-week sprint features Ohio State-Indiana, Wisconsin-Michigan State and Indiana-Michigan. All three games will have a major impact on the final standings and which four teams receive the coveted first-round byes in next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
Life in the Big Ten has rarely reached the level seen during the 2012-13 season. Not only does the top half of the conference feature some of the nation’s best teams, but the bottom half gives the Big Ten depth that few leagues can rival.
“We have talent in our league from top to bottom, and I think that’s maybe what separates us,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter. “I think the teams that are at the bottom in the rankings are teams that can push to the top and put themselves in good position come March.”
In the past week, Ohio State (mildly) upset Michigan State, Minnesota stunned No. 1 Indiana and Penn State, previously 0-14 in the conference, pulled off arguably the biggest shocker of the season, overcoming a 15-point deficit in the final 10 minutes to beat fourth-ranked Michigan.
And if that wasn’t enough for you, Purdue topped Wisconsin in the impenetrable Kohl Center on Senior Day, the first such loss of Bo Ryan’s career in Madison.
“You’re attempting to bring it every night,” said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. “People tend to forget every other team is bringing it, too.”
The Big Ten has the best assembly of talent on the court and coaches on the bench. The five teams that will duke it out for a conference championship this week are all legitimate Final Four contenders. Then you have Illinois and Minnesota, programs that were ranked in the top 10 at one time this season. Needless to say, the Fighting Illini and Golden Gophers will not be on anyone’s list of desirable tournament opponents.
One glance at the RPI, Ken Pomery’s rankings – the Big Ten owns six of the top 14 slots – or the writers’ and coaches’ polls reveals a resounding conclusion that the Big Ten is at the head of the class.
Comfort is not a position coaches settle into. From late December until the end of the season, there’s a feeling of uneasiness.
Less than a month ago, Matta didn’t know what had engulfed his team. He just knew they were in a serious funk. They haven’t lost since, building momentum with the most important segment of the season remaining.
The Buckeyes are in a four-way tie for second place with Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
“The race is never over,” said Ohio State forward Sam Thompson. “We know that. Every other team knows that.”
“The race is never over. We know that. Every other team knows that.”
In a week with a rash of upsets, that message reverberated in cities and locker rooms throughout the Midwest.
“It’s kind of just life in the Big Ten,” Matta said.
At various points this season, Ohio State has resembled the team it was last year when the Final Four was the final destination. But inconsistency, among other issues, has plagued the Buckeyes.
Facing one of the toughest schedules in the country, Ohio State has two wins over top-five teams. There also are seven losses to ranked opponents. Since losing three of four, however, Ohio State has won three straight and placed itself in prime position to eke out another Big Ten title.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Matta said. “We’ve gone hard, extremely, extremely hard.”
Of course, the four teams the Buckeyes are jostling with also have an air of confidence about them. The only difference is they haven’t won three consecutive conference championships.
If Ohio State is to add another season to an already notable accomplishment, it will have to duplicate the improbable final-week mission it completed last season. And like their journey in 2012, the Buckeyes must win at one of the most unforgiving venues in the sport – Assembly Hall…on Senior Night.
The mission is not impossible. Wisconsin already completed the cycle, winning in Bloomington then losing on its own Senior Day.
In the Big Ten, just when you think you have everything figured out, surprises leap out from every corner.