For the first time since the conference expanded to 14 teams in 2014-15, Ohio State earned a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, after finishing with a surprising 24-7, 15-3 regular season record.
Earning a double-bye means Ohio State gets an extra two days off with the tournament officially starting Wednesday night, with the bottom four teams opening play in the first round. However, the Buckeyes begin preparation for Friday not knowing who their opponent will be until late Thursday night. Chris Holtmann's team is set to play the winner of the No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 10 Northwestern matchup, with the Nittany Lions and Wildcats set to tip Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.
Holtmann said Monday that his coaching staff already has scouting reports on both teams ready to go, and that certain members of his staff will be at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday to live scout the Penn State vs. Northwestern game.
"We will have a game plan in place for both teams (Tuesday), and finish it up Wednesday for both teams and how we would like to attack them," Holtmann said.
Ohio State's combined record against Penn State and Northwestern this season is 1-2, with both losses coming to the Nittany Lions, the only Big Ten team the Buckeyes did not defeat this season. Tony Carr's buzzer-beater from 30 feet sank OSU in the first matchup, 82-79, before the Buckeyes were blitzed in the second game, 79-56.
Holtmann said Wednesday that while Ohio State defeated Northwestern, 71-65, in the lone meeting against the Wildcats, he believes the No. 10 seed provides a formidable challenge.
"It's going to be a difficult game whoever we play. Obviously Northwestern, we know how capable and good they are," Holtmann said. "It got very close at their place late, and I don't have to review our struggles against Penn State. It's hard to anticipate who will win that game. I think it's going to be a really close game in that one, so we are preparing for both teams as much as possible."
The Wildcats, as many will remember, made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history last year, and won their opening round game as well before falling to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga in the second round. This season, Northwestern has limped to a 15-16, 6-12 record, and have dealt with multiple injuries throughout the campaign.
Penn State, on the other hand, has played its best basketball against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions broke a school record for three-point shooting in their first win against the Buckeyes, before dominating Holtmann's squad from start to finish in the second meeting in State College, Pa.
In those two games against the Nittany Lions, Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop has had mixed results. In an 82-79 loss at home on Jan. 25, Bates-Diop poured in 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including three straight made shots from behind the arc to claw his team back into the game. In the road loss in Happy Valley, however, Bates-Diop scored just 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting, as the Buckeyes were thrashed by 23.
Despite dropping both contests to Penn State this season, Bates-Diop said he would welcome a third chance at knocking off the Nittany Lions.
"I would like one," Bates-Diop said when asked if he wanted another shot at Penn State. "But I have no preference either way."
Ohio State is set to tip off against either the Nittany Lions or Wildcats at 6:30 p.m. on Friday from Madison Square Garden. Be sure to check back with Eleven Warriors on Friday morning for a full game preview.