With three games left in the regular season, questions still seem to linger over an Ohio State team that should be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Whether or not the Buckeyes can make any noise remains muddled.
As such, after a blowout of feeble Nebraska on Thursday night, Ohio State plays Purdue Sunday evening before a trip to Penn State next week and, finally, a home finale against Wisconsin, the Big Ten leader.
With the final stretch of the regular season looming, here's what the Buckeyes can do to bolster their resume in the next eight days.
Need More Loving
Before his three-game suspension, Loving scored 19 points and buried five 3-pointers to help crush Maryland, 80-56. The win still serves as Ohio State's biggest point of pride so far and it's pretty obvious Loving played a critical role in helping the Buckeyes toy with what is regarded as one of the better teams in the conference (if not the second best behind Wisconsin).
Yet in his return to the court, Loving has been underwhelming, scoring 10 points in the last three games (zero points against Michigan State, four points against Michigan and six points against the Cornhuskers Thursday).
He found a bit of his stroke back against Nebraska after making 2-of-3 3-pointers, but the Buckeyes need Loving to return to the level of marksmanship that has made him the team's best deep shooter. It takes pressure of players like Russell and Tate when teams have to respect a threat behind the arc.
Better Big Play
It might be too late, but if Ohio State wants to make a run in the postseason, it’ll have to get better play from Amir Williams, Trey McDonald and Anthony Lee, who has been sidelined with a nagging groin strain.
The three average 4.4 points a game and haven’t had exactly been forces for good underneath the basket. The Buckeyes have figured out ways to combat what seems to be an inherent weakness on this team with Russell and Jae’Sean Tate, who plays much larger than his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame.
Yet in the NCAA Tournament, we’ve seen these kind of innate defects come back to bite teams in the end.
Look, I get there’s only three games left in the season. But in a way, this stretch might be a microcosm of Ohio State’s season thus far, which has been uneven at times.
You have a game against Purdue, an above average team in the conference that has proven it can beat the Buckeyes (likewise, the Buckeyes have proven they can beat teams like the Boilermakers.) Then you have Penn State, one of the league’s worst teams, and one which Ohio State clobbered two weeks ago. Finally, there’s Wisconsin, the conference’s cream of the crop.
Throughout this season, Matta and Co. have been able to take down top teams like Maryland and Indiana, but lost to the likes of Michigan as recently as last week. After a span in which they won of five of six games, we thought the Buckeyes turned a corner. Instead, they lost back-to-back games to Michigan State and the Wolverines. A strong outing against Boilermakers, Nittany Lions and Badgers will help quell lingering concerns.
Here's something I've been thinking about: I'm not sure whether or not Ohio State is better when it lets Russell take over the game or when others share the load.
On one hand, I'm a firm believer that the Buckeyes will only go as far as Russell can take them. On the other, opponents have figured out ways to slow him down lately.
While Ohio State has proven it can have guys like Tate and Thompson step up and pour in major production, Russell is this team's best player and when he's at his best, so are the Buckeyes. Is that a sustainable theory in the postseason? Probably not. But he might be Ohio State's best chance. I'd want that guy to have the ball in his hands as much as possible, whether it's shooting, passing or rebounding.