After it showed signs of progress, Ohio State stubbed its toe Sunday.
The Buckeyes fell to Northwestern at home, 74-72, as they had their brief two-game winning streak snapped. For Ohio State, it was another missed opportunity in a close game against a quality opponent.
Things aren't getting much easier for the Buckeyes, either, as they quickly must turn the page and focus on their next game: Ohio State hosts Minnesota on Wednesday evening.
|Minnesota (15-5, 3-4 B1G)||Value City Arena||7 p.m.||BTN|
It is the first rematch of the season for the Buckeyes; the Gophers knocked off Ohio State on Jan. 8, 78-68. Since that game, however, Minnesota hasn't won, so both teams are in desperate need of a victory.
"We need a win," freshman center Micah Potter said. "Our backs are against the ball and the only way we can go is forward so hopefully we can make that step."
Let's break down Wednesday's matchup between the Buckeyes and Gophers a little further.
After knocking off Ohio State, Minnesota was riding high as the Gophers sat at 15-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten and were ranked No. 24 in the country. Since that win, however, it's been tough sledding for Richard Pitino's bunch.
Minnesota comes to Columbus having lost its last three games. The Gophers dropped a pair of road games at Michigan State and Penn State then lost at home in overtime to league-leading Wisconsin.
Despite the recent struggles, though, Minnesota is still a quality opponent. This is just kind of the way the Big Ten works this season. Each and every game seemingly pairs two rather evenly matched teams.
"We've got to play a better first 20 minutes than we did up there. That was bad basketball in terms of how we handled the basketball and how we didn't execute," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "I think from Game 1, we made some mistakes defensively and they really, really made us pay."
Minnesota is still currently ranked No. 38 overall in Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical ratings despite its recent slide. The Gophers rank just 136 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (106.6 points per 100 possessions) but are No. 6 overall in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions).
The latter number ranks first in the Big Ten, but it has dipped a bit in conference play. The Gophers are allowing 96.7 points per 100 possession in league games.
Point guard Nate Mason still leads the way averaging a team-high 13.7 points and 5.6 assists per game. But Minnesota also gets double-figures from Amir Coffey (12.3 points per game), Dupree McBrayer (11.8 points per game) and Jordan Murphy (9.8 points per game).
Coffey went for 19 points in the first meeting between these two teams, but it was Akeem Springs who really hurt the Buckeyes. Springs hit five 3-pointers and scored 18 points. He currently averages 8.9 points per game for Minnesota.
Ohio State had plenty of chances to beat Northwestern but ultimately two factors which had been troublesome at times this season cost the Buckeyes in a big way: turnovers and free throws.
Ohio State committed 13 turnovers that led to 17 points for the Wildcats and the Buckeyes shot just 12-for-23 at the line while Northwestern went 19-for-24. Those two disparities allowed the Wildcats to win the game despite the fact they shot just 38 percent from the field and were 7-for-24 behind the 3-point line.
When Ohio State holds an opponent to those shooting numbers at home, the Buckeyes have to win. They didn't, and it certainly felt like a missed opportunity.
Matta said following the loss a player addressed the team. It was revealed Tuesday during a meeting with reporters that player was redshirt junior guard Kam Williams, who challenged his teammates to look themselves in the mirror.
"I just felt like something had to be said after a loss like that,” Williams said. “We didn’t play well at all and I just felt like someone beyond the coaches had to step up and say something. And if that’s the role I’m going to have to take going forward then I’m going to take it because ain’t no one else doing it. I feel like I can step up and be that vocal leader.”
Without Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State needs all five of its starters to pull their own weight or the team simply can't be good enough to beat some of these teams in the Big Ten. The margin for error is too small. Against Northwestern, the Buckeyes had four starters in double-figures, but senior forward Marc Loving finished with just five points on 2-for-8 shooting.
After the loss to the Wildcats, Ohio State can still get back to .500 in Big Ten play if it wins these next three toss-up games: vs. Minnesota, at Iowa and vs. Maryland. But the Buckeyes haven't shown the consistency needed yet to close out close games.
Ohio State looked like it may have turned the corner after wins over Michigan State and Nebraska, but the Buckeyes took a step backward in the loss to Northwestern.
How It Plays Out
Following the loss to the Wildcats, Matta and Ohio State's players felt the team didn't have the necessary mindset heading into the game. For a team that should be playing desperately, that was rather confusing.
It's hard to imagine the Buckeyes playing like that again, but with this team, anything seems possible. It's also difficult to envision Minnesota losing its fourth-straight game. The Gophers are plenty good enough and are legitimate NCAA tournament contenders.
Once again, Ohio State finds itself in a toss-up.
That's just how this season is going to go, it seems. Just about every game the Buckeyes play is going to come down to the wire. How they finish will decide their fate the rest of this season.
KenPom projects a one-point win for Ohio State and gives the Buckeyes a 51 percent chance of victory. We see it right along those lines, as well.
Tim's prediction: Ohio State 71, Minnesota 68