WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The same Ohio State basketball team that was picked to finish outside the top 10 in the conference at the beginning of the year is in the driver's seat to win the Big Ten with two weeks left in league play.
Go ahead, read that again if you'd like. Pinch yourself if need be.
With just five games left in conference play, Ohio State is scheduled to play just one more ranked opponent this season, when it travels to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan on Feb. 18. The Buckeyes also play three of their last five on the road, including a trip to State College, Pa., to play a Penn State team that handed OSU its lone league loss this year.
Despite all of that, when asked how good his team actually is after pulling the upset of No. 3 Purdue, 64-63, on Wednesday night, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said the Buckeyes will have to continue to improve in order to make the current run it's on count for something down the road.
|#14 Ohio State||12-1||21-5|
|#4 Michigan State||11-2||23-3|
"I think that story is still being told. It can be pretty fluid to be honest with you. I think as a coach what you're trying to do is continue to grow and continue to play better as the season progresses," he said. "Continue to find ways to tweak your team and challenge them to improve as the year goes on, and that is really what's in front of us right now."
Ohio State has won 11 of its last 12 games and has won its only matchups against Michigan State and Purdue. The Spartans and Boilermakers meet on Saturday and should Tom Izzo's squad win at home, the Buckeyes would have a full game on both teams heading into the home stretch.
The Big Ten record of Ohio State's remaining opponents stands at 26-39 as of Feb. 8, with the Wolverines boasting the best record at 19-7 (8-5). While the Buckeyes' path to a conference crown is manageable, Ohio State can't afford a slip-up if it wants to maintain its hold on the league.
If Purdue defeats Michigan State on Saturday, the Boilermakers would remain tied atop the conference standings with Ohio State, with an even easier stretch of games than the Buckeyes. Following its tilt with the Spartans, the Boilermakers finish the regular season with games against Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois and Minnesota.
The Spartans have a similar road to finish the year, with games against Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin, with just one of those games (Illinois) coming at home.
All season, Ohio State has taken a 'one game at a time' approach, and that will need to continue in order to stay in control of a conference its has not won since 2011-12, when the Buckeyes shared with both Michigan State and Michigan.
"We didn't go into this saying this (Purdue game) was going to be a barometer. We really didn't talk about it much," Holtmann said of the Big Ten title race. "Our goal throughout the season has been commit to consistent improvement. Obviously anybody playing in this league would love to win their league. Will it be something we talk about? We will see how we continue to progress. There are still several games to play."