Ohio State almost has no choice but to play with nothing to lose.
What else is there to do but gain from here? The Buckeyes aren’t on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament at this juncture, slotted at 71st in the NET rankings with a combined 1-9 record in Quadrant 1 and 2 games.
Their only way back in is to win where nobody expects them to. And almost nobody outside the program expects Ohio State to beat No. 20 Wisconsin on the road on Tuesday or No. 2 Purdue at home on Sunday.
“I think the reality is that that can be a help at times,” Chris Holtmann said on Monday. “But you’re really just focused on learning from what we did in the Wisconsin game good that we can do better and maybe where there’s some things we need to tweak or change going into that (game). Then after that, tackling this Purdue team, figuring out the best way to put a gameplan in for those guys.”
Wisconsin could be a more winnable game than it appears at first glance.
The Badgers are on a four-game losing streak, plummeting from No. 6 in the AP Poll to No. 20 in just two weeks. Their two most recent losses were at Michigan and at Rutgers, the teams currently placed last and fourth to last in the Big Ten.
“I know Wisconsin’s had some bumps in the road here with playing three out of four on the road and their one home game was Purdue,” Holtmann said. “They’ll certainly be hungry, we’re hungry, and it should be a great atmosphere there.”
Ohio State hung tough with a hotter Wisconsin team in Value City Arena on Jan. 10, leading 56-52 midway through the second half before the Badgers dismantled them with a 19-4 extended run to close a 71-60 victory.
Despite those trends working in the Buckeyes’ favor, the fact remains that they have been downright abysmal on the road the past two seasons. They are one game shy of equaling the school record for longest road losing streak, having lost 15 in a row in hostile environments.
OSU did show signs of fight in a back-and-forth battle against Iowa on its last road trip but couldn’t secure a win down the stretch of a 79-77 defeat. It was at least a much better outing than Ohio State’s 83-58 implosion at Northwestern six days prior.
“I don’t know if it’s anything other than what we’ve talked about before,” Holtmann said of where the team can improve in away games. “I didn’t sense that we played with a lack of poise at Iowa, but I think we did at Northwestern, so we’ve made some improvements there. But on the road, you’ve gotta do what you do, you’ve gotta do it at a better level, at a higher level because you know the home team is going to be operating at a higher level.”
Ohio State’s collective backs are against the wall. With nothing more to lose and everything to gain from a win over either Wisconsin or Purdue, ideally, the team should play like it.
“We’ll see what the mentality and the fight of our kids are,” Holtmann said. “I think that’s what we’re all anxious to see. What is our fight, our poise, our mentality, our togetherness in those environments that we’re gonna face?”