There’s no sugarcoating it. Ohio State basketball is spiraling right now.
How else does one classify losses in five out of seven January games?
The two most recent of those defeats were the most lopsided of the bunch. Nebraska easily disposed of the Buckeyes in Pinnacle Bank Arena, then Northwestern ran away with a 25-point blowout win in Welsh-Ryan Arena to extend Ohio State’s road losing streak to 14 games.
It feels as though the Buckeyes are destined to miss the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year after a 16-19 2022-23 season that featured a stretch in which Ohio State lost 14 of 15 games.
But, for now, it still only feels that way. A road – however uphill and unlikely – still exists for Ohio State to turn this season around. Even if almost no one outside the team’s locker room believes it.
“We are certainly better and more capable than what we played tonight,” Chris Holtmann said after the Northwestern loss. “That’s what I really believe. We are way better and more capable than how we played tonight. Again, give Northwestern credit. You can’t take anything away from them. But we are better than we played tonight and we need to be that here and respond with just better stuff all around.”
Twenty regular season wins feels like the minimum necessary to give Ohio State a shot at the NCAA Tournament, especially if it can grab a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament afterward. That would mean winning 7 of the 11 remaining games on its schedule.
Out of those 11 contests, two are against top-10 teams in No. 10 Illinois – who the Buckeyes play on Tuesday – and No. 2 Purdue.
Another problem for Ohio State in trying to make the NCAA Tournament is its one total victory in Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games. The Buckeyes are just 1-7 in games that fit into the two highest quadrants based on opponents’ NET rankings and whether they were played at home, away from home or at a neutral site.
The seven most likely victories on OSU’s remaining schedule are probably (in order of date) Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan and Rutgers. The Iowa, Minnesota and Rutgers games are all on the road, where the Buckeyes are now 0-5 this season.
A road contest at Michigan State could be another place to look for a victory.
Among those eight games, two would currently be Quadrant 1 contests for Ohio State (Iowa and Michigan State) while two more are Quadrant 2 (Minnesota and Rutgers).
That’s the path. Find a way to take seven of those games, bag a few Q1 and Q2 wins, win another game or two in the conference tourney and hope it’s enough to get a bid to the Big Dance.
Right now, though, Ohio State’s quality of play doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that all of that can happen.
“When you lose by double figures in two (consecutive) games and lose by 25 tonight on the road, it’s got to be a real situation that is going to grab your attention,” Holtmann said. “You have to figure out why that is the case and what we can do as coaches and players to do much better. That’s what we will be doing 24/7 the next few days to figure out what we need to do to be much better.”
Upsetting a ranked team along the way would be a huge boost, whether that’s against the Fighting Illini, the Boilermakers or at No. 13 Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes will have to play much better than they have for most of this month to make that happen.
Meanwhile, outgoing Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith will be evaluating Holtmann’s future in Columbus.
“We have a lot of this season left to play, and we have coaches and players that are focused on winning every day,” Smith told The Columbus Dispatch. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”
It’s a steep and unyielding climb to the NCAA Tournament for Ohio State, but that could be what it takes for Holtmann to save his job as the Buckeyes’ coach.