The best time of the basketball season (and the college football offseason) is here. Ohio State has (mostly) negotiated the B1G minefield and now sets its sights on postseason glory. It starts tonight at 6:30 ET at Chicago’s United Center.
With four Top 10 teams in the conference tournament, the road ahead is trickier than following Gollum up the stairs of Cirith Ungol into
Ann Arbor Mordor, but the prize is shinier than Sauron’s ring of power.
Yes, nerdy references on 11W. Let’s move on.
A Little BTT History
The No. 10/9 Buckeyes have an all-time record of 17-8 and a league-best .680 winning percentage in the Big Ten tournament, with three championships and four second-place finishes. Ohio State has reached the finals four straight times and six of the last seven. Note: These numbers exclude the vacated seasons of 1998-99 through 2001-02, during which the Buckeyes were 4-3 with a championship in 2002.
The No. 2 seed is a pretty favorable one for Ohio State. The second seed has the second-best winning percentage in the tournament at 17-9 (.654) — this also excludes the vacated Jim O’Brien years. If you count the vacated 2002 season, the second seed has won the tournament five times, including Ohio State in 2002. However, Iowa’s 2006 squad was the last No. 2 to win the tournament.
There are often surprises in the tournament. In 2010 and 2011, the Buckeyes faced the No. 6 seed on Sunday, in the forms of Minnesota and Penn State, respectively. Ohio State reached the final as a fifth seed in 2009. In 2008 it was No. 10 Illinois crashing the party. The Illini also reached Sunday as an 11th seed in 1999. The top two seeds have reached the final together only four times, and it happened in consecutive years from 2004-07.
Time Has Come Today
First up for the Buckeyes is a third game against 10th seed Nebraska, which advanced with a somewhat surprising 57-55 win over Purdue yesterday. Freshman Shavon Shields scored 19 points, with six rebounds, and Brandon Ubel added 16 points and eight boards. Nebraska took good care of the ball, turning it over only six times. It was Nebrasketball’s first victory in the B1G tournament.
The Buckeyes swept the Cornhuskers during the regular season. Ohio State clobbered the Huskers by 26 in the conference opener back on Jan. 2, winning 70-44. Deshaun Thomas scored 22 points and grabbed eight boards to lead Ohio State. Lenzelle Smith Jr. kicked in 17 points and six rebounds. Ray Gallegos was the only Husker in double figures, with 14 points. Nebraska scored only 17 first-half points.
In the rematch in Lincoln, Ohio State had a much more difficult time shucking the Cornhuskers, winning 63-56 on Feb. 2. Nebrasketball again brought out the best in Lenzelle. He led all scorers with 21 points. Deshaun scored 15 points and Aaron Craft knocked in 14, with six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. Ohio State shot only 39%, was outrebounded—especially on the offensive end—and had 16 fewer field goal attempts. The Buckeyes must hit the glass harder and take care of the basketball to threepeat over the Huskers.
Tomorrow Never Knows
If successful on Friday, Saturday’s afternoon tilt would be against the Michigan State-Iowa winner. The Hawkeyes handled Northwestern, 73-59, in last night’s late game to claim a shot at Sparty. The No. 8/7 Spartans and Hawkeyes played just once during the regular season, with Michigan State squeaking out a 62-59 win at Iowa City on Jan. 10. The Spartans will be favored to win tonight, but an upset loss is certainly not out of the question. Fran McCaffery’s team has won seven of its last nine games and is one of the hotter teams in the B1G right now.
If the Spartans prevail, the Buckeyes would be faced with a tough challenge. The teams split their regular season series, with each winning on its home floor. You’ll recall the first meeting for Shannon Scott’s wild toss-up in a game-tying situation. Keith Appling led the Spartans with 15 points and Adreian Payne added 14 in Sparty’s 59-56 win Jan. 19 at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Branden Dawson also created problems that night, with nine points and 10 boards.
Thomas was a one-man show for the Buckeyes in that loss, scoring 28 points with seven rebounds. No one else scored more than six for Ohio State. Craft and Smith combined for seven turnovers against only four made field goals and 11 total points.
In the rematch, the Buckeyes won, 68-60, in Columbus on Feb. 24, with Craft stealing the show. The junior point guard scored 21 points with six assists, three rebounds and a steal, and completely shut down Appling, who scored only three points on 1/6 shooting. Appling also committed three turnovers. Thomas scored 14 with seven boards and Evan Ravenel added 10 points. Gary Harris scored 14 for Sparty, with Payne and Derrick Nix notching 12 each.
Who wins a rubber match? That will probably be decided by the Craft-Appling duel. Appling clearly won it in Michigan State’s win on Jan. 19. Craft dominated the matchup on Feb. 24. Both guards finished the season strong, though Appling did struggle for a couple of weeks prior.
If Iowa upsets Sparty it would produce a rematch of the Jan. 22 meeting in Columbus. And the Hawkeyes will have won eight of their last 10 games if it happens. The Buckeyes won the lone regular-season meeting, 72-63, but struggled on the glass and committed 17 turnovers, including an unheard-of six by Craft. Ohio State shot 52% and four Buckeyes reached double figures, but the turnovers and rebounding kept Iowa in the game throughout. Only Aaron White reached doubles for Iowa, with 13 points and seven boards — six on the offensive end. Melsahn Basabe pulled down 10 rebounds.
If a surprise team reaches the Sunday tournament final, my money would be on Iowa.
the other Side of life
If Ohio State wins Saturday, No. 3 Indiana would obviously be the favorite to make it through the other side of the bracket. The regular-season B1G champs—and I just threw up in my mouth typing that—split their two meetings with Ohio State, with each team winning on the road. The spoiling of Indiana’s Senior Day is still fresh in our minds, and it ultimately almost gave Ohio State a fourth straight B1G title, if not for No. 6/8 Michigan getting a case of the yips from the charity stripe in the final seconds on Sunday.
But is it possible someone other than Indiana will make it to Sunday on the bracket’s other side? It is possible.
Three of Indiana’s five losses this season are to teams that began the tournament on the Hoosiers’ side of the bracket—Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Yesterday, Illinois nipped the Gophers on Brandon Paul’s last-second fadeaway jump shot, winning 51-49 in the B1G’s patented first-team-to-50-points format. In the other first-round matchup, Michigan struggled with Penn State for 30 minutes, before pulling away after the under-eight timeout, winning 83-66.
So, the Hoosiers face the Illini in today’s early game. Should Indiana advance, it will have to play either Wisconsin or Michigan. The Badgers already have a victory in Bloomington on their resume. Thanks to shoddy free-throw shooting on Sunday, the Wolverines don’t have a win against Indiana, but they’ll have revenge on their minds should they get past the Buzzcuts today.
Ohio State split its games with all four remaining teams on the other side of the bracket, winning at home against Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, and on the road against the Hoosiers. The trips to Champaign, Madison, and
Mordor Ann Arbor didn’t go as well, and Indiana got far too comfortable in Columbus.
What does it all mean?
Not much, just that Ohio State would be in for a battle against any of the four remaining teams if it gets past Nebraska and the Sparty/Iowa winner. Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana all own lopsided wins against the Buckeyes this season. Ohio State and Michigan split their two-game set but those contests separated the teams by only five total points.
So which poison do you pick?
The temptation is to select Illinois, as perhaps the least talented of the four squads. But that 74-55 beatdown in Champaign on Jan. 4 is a nagging concern. Do you prefer to play Michigan, knowing you’ll have to sweat out the end game, but with the bonus of having a chance to taste Wolverine tears again? Or do you select Indiana, to try to pay back the Fighting Creans for their insolence in stealing the B1G crown from Brutus’s head?
All four scenarios are problematic in their own ways. I’d opt for Illinois or Michigan, as either would be playing its fourth game in four days, so fatigue would be a factor. In the end, I pick Illinois, as the least hateable team from that side of the bracket. I would like Ohio State’s chances. And an OSU loss would mean a big win for Thad Matta disciple John Groce. It would also mean no celebration for Bo Ryan, Tom Crean, or the whole state of Michigan, so that’s not a bad consolation.
Regardless of which path the Buckeyes take through Chicago, it will certainly be fraught with peril. Ohio State steps onto that path this evening. A journey in the dark begins, and the Buckeyes have no Lembas bread to refresh them. The Ringwraiths ride in black. Ride on.