Two seconds and a wrong turn are all that stood between Ohio State and another conference championship – its fourth consecutive – but it was not to be. The irony, of course, is that Michigan’s final-minute meltdown against Indiana cost the Buckeyes their title.
The lack of a Big Ten championship, however, does not diminish the season Ohio State had.
There were lofty expectations when the preseason polls revealed Ohio State was ranked fourth. Losing a two-time All-American in Jared Sullinger and the program’s third-leading scorer of all-time, William Buford, didn’t lessen the season outlook.
“Year to year the people change, but the expectation is to get back to Atlanta and win two more games,” said point guard Aaron Craft – in October.
The national perception, though, was that Ohio State was overrated, not in a demeaning way, but rather in a literal sense. Highs and lows followed over the course of the season. Then came Feb. 17, when the Buckeyes suffered one of its worst losses in recent memory, a 71-49 mauling at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers. It was the third loss in a four-game spiral.
Ohio State stood at 8-5 in the Big Ten, visions of a conference title long gone. With a once-promising season at a crossroads, a funny thing happened. Ohio State won the rest of its games, beating two top-five opponents in the process – Michigan State and Indiana.
The Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team to beat all 11 conference opponents.
“We have a nice little streak going on here,” said Ohio State’s lone senior, Evan Ravenel, after the Buckeyes’ Senior Day triumph over Illinois.
To some, a 23-7 overall record and 13-5 conference ledger might not be eye-opening. But this has been perhaps the best coaching job in Thad Matta’s nine years at Ohio State. The 2005-06 Big Ten champions also stick out, though that was an overachieving group that entered the season with no expectations.
Following up Final Four seasons is one of the toughest jobs in the sport. That’s why you rarely see teams make return appearances the next year.
“The first time we went to Final Four, the next year was one of the most challenging years of coaching I ever had,” Matta said. “We had a young team and we had guys that just thought because they showed up things were going to happen for them.”
They missed the NCAA Tournament. Embarrassed and humbled, the Buckeyes won the NIT, but it was little consolation. This season, Matta took a team that had no identity and molded it into a selfless bunch that does all the little things.
Well into the mad month of March, few teams are as hot as the Buckeyes. After all, that’s what Matta’s teams do – get better as the season rolls along. Their five consecutive games on the plus side represent the longest current win streak in the Big Ten.
“I always say I want us to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Matta said. “I think we’re closing in on it.”
For the first two months of the season, all anyone wanted to talk about was Ohio State’s offensive deficiency. Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, was holding up to his end of the bargain, but his teammates left him stranded on an island.
Instead of having someone to help complement his scoring, Ohio State just needed a balanced team game. That type of production has followed ever since the mid-February swoon.
“I love the fact that they kept working, kept practicing, kept the energy, kept the focus,” Matta said. “I like where we are now. You just finished the regular season, with everything that transpired in college basketball, with five straight wins.”
Said Craft: “Instead of falling apart, we did a great job of coming together and believing in the system and our coaches and one another.”
Ohio State is the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago. The Buckeyes will play at 6:30 on Friday night against the winner of Purdue-Nebraska.
Yes, the same team that was written off multiple times, most recently three weeks ago, is the second seed in the best conference in the country. And there’s no stopping now. Denied a regular-season crown, Ohio State heads west to Chicago with only one thing on its mind – championship.
“You’ve got the taste of winning in your mouth and you want to keep it there,” Ravenel said. “You want to keep playing and keep winning.”
Stopping to ponder not only the previous weeks, but also the entire season, Matta was at a loss for words.
“I’m so damn tired, I can’t answer that question,” he said.
Rest up. March is only beginning.