Re-Examining Reasonable Expectations For Ohio State As The Season Winds Down

By James Grega on February 19, 2018 at 10:10 am
Andrew Dakich, Jae'Sean Tate

Following an upset win over No. 3 Purdue and a thrashing of Iowa, we discussed on this very site about how Ohio State could possibly make a Final Four run with the way it was playing. 

There is a chance we jumped the gun. 

Ohio State has lost its last two games by double digits and been exposed in areas many of us thought they would be all season. The Buckeyes had been playing above their own ceiling for much of the season, and now, it appears the Scarlet and Gray are starting to come back to Earth.

That isn't to say the team can't right the ship in the last two regular season games of the season and make a run in the Big Ten tournament. If there is one thing that has remained consistent with the Buckeyes all season, it has been their resiliency, led by senior forward Jae'Sean Tate. 

The veteran, who scored 20 points and corralled 15 rebounds in a loss to Michigan on Sunday, said that despite Ohio State no longer controlling its own destiny in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes' mindset stays the same. 

"At the end of the day, we are just looking at the game we have ahead of us. One by one," he said. 

If you take that same approach, the Buckeyes return home on Tuesday to take on a Rutgers team that has yet to win a road game this season. The Scarlet Knights have collected just three conference victories all season and fell to the Buckeyes, 68-46, on their home floor in January. 

From there, Ohio State ends the regular season with a Friday night showdown with Indiana, a team that as of Monday is riding a four-game winning streak and playing its best basketball of the season. The Hoosiers have won three of their last four games by double digits and still have a chance to leap Penn State in the Big Ten standings. 

So what are realistic expectations for Ohio State now that the Buckeyes appear to have been exposed, especially at the guard position? While I won't put a cap on what this team is capable of – they have proven they can beat anyone in the country on a good night – I will say my personal expectation is a Sweet 16 run, and not much more. 

What Chris Holtmann has been able to do in his first season at Ohio State has been nothing short of extraordinary. He took a team that was picked to finish outside the top 10 in the league and as of a week ago, had it at the top of the conference standings with just one Big Ten loss. He has already locked up Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, in this man's opinion, and should be on the short list for national coach of the year awards.

However, you cannot ignore the deficiencies the Buckeyes have anymore, something that is easy to do when they are winning. Ohio State's doesn't have a true point guard. C.J. Jackson is clearly more comfortable playing off the ball and while Andrew Dakich has exhibited incredible hustle and and effort this season, along with keeping the offense moving, he struggles to execute when facing longer, more athletic guards. 

Ohio State will have to lean on Tate to play more point guard in these situations, which worked at times against the Wolverines. However, Tate is a player that, as Holtmann has acknowledged this season, needs rest throughout games because of the intensity he plays with at all times. When he comes off the floor against teams like Michigan, Ohio State's offense suddenly becomes stagnant. 

In addition, Ohio State can no longer rely on Keita Bates-Diop to drop in 25 points in big games. The redshirt junior forward, who is still thought to be at the top of the Big Ten Player of the Year list, has struggled with his shot in his last two games, and the Buckeyes have not found a consistent third scorer outside of their veteran duo. 

Bates-Diop, who shot just 5-of-17 from the floor against the Wolverines, said he is continuing to find ways to get more open looks at the rim. 

"I just have to find a way to get off people's bodies and get open somehow," Bates-Diop said after the Michigan loss. "It's difficult because there are good defenders and they scout us obviously. I have to find a way."

Just like Bates-Diop, Ohio State has to find a way to close this regular season strong and enter the conference tournament with momentum. With a Big Ten regular season title no longer firmly in their grasp, the Buckeyes can only focus on themselves and getting back on track. If they can do that, this team can still make a special run in the postseason. If not, an early exit in the tournament – which at the beginning of the season would have been a victory for the program – is more likely. 

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