Ohio State basketball is dangerously close to putting its NCAA Tournament hopes out of its own hands and into the control of potential bid thieves.
The Buckeyes, who looked like they’d be just fine after dominating Iowa 90-70 on Feb. 26, have gone into an aggressive downward spiral after the suspension of sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson. The 35-point blowout loss at the hands of Purdue didn’t really cost anything, but losing by 18 to Northwestern is when the tables turned on Ohio State. A win there likely would have sewn up a tournament bid, given that the Buckeyes at worst would have finished the regular season 19-12 overall and 9-11 in Big Ten play. Instead, Ohio State lost to the worst team in the conference — and did so in embarrassing fashion by missing 12 consecutive shots to open the game and never really putting the final result into question.
So, where are we now? While I think the Purdue loss was a non-factor, the loss to Northwestern not only cost the Buckeyes a feeling of safety but also might have upped the ante because of how bad of a loss it was. While just one more win against any team would’ve have been enough pre-Northwestern, now the Buckeyes might need a good win to truly feel safe.
Here’s how a couple of different outlets see it in their latest Bubble Watch posts:
ESPN: Without Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State is in free fall. The 6-foot-9 sophomore was suspended indefinitely and has now missed two games, the second of which was a 68-50 loss at Northwestern. Chris Holtmann’s team had already seen its projected bracket position slip from the No. 9 line to a No. 10 seed, but now OSU has larger concerns than mere seeding. The Buckeyes close their season hosting Wisconsin, and a loss would leave Ohio State 18-13 overall and 8-12 in conference. True, all season long this team has clung to its road win at Cincinnati in the first game of the season. That is indeed a great win, it’s just that OSU hasn’t been able to give that victory much in the way of company. The Buckeyes’ other Quad 1 wins were at Creighton, at Nebraska and at Indiana. That body of work might not be enough in the event of a loss to the Badgers and a quick exit from the Big Ten tournament.
Sports Illustrated: An Ohio State without Kaleb Wesson is not a tournament team, and that should have people in Columbus very worried considering that Wesson remains suspended. The Buckeyes looked terrible in a 68–50 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday. They had just 17 points in the first half and finished the game at 0.79 points per possession. The Buckeyes wrap up their season by hosting Wisconsin on Sunday, a game in which they’re likely to be underdogs, even if Wesson returns. A win in that game would likely have them safe, while a loss could force them to play on the first day of the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes have officially reached the danger zone.
(Note: Sports Illustrated is wrong about possibly playing on the first day of the conference tournament, as Ohio State can’t fall lower than the No. 8-9 matchup on the second day.)
The Athletic: The Buckeyes have not had their best bubble week in program history, that’s for sure. Last Saturday, they were blown out by 35 at Purdue. On Wednesday, Northwestern dropped them, 68-50. Meanwhile, Indiana keeps winning games, and Minnesota knocked off Purdue, and if the bubble race was down to the Big Ten’s three hopefuls, Ohio State would be feeling extremely nervous. Good news for OSU: That’s not how it works. The Buckeyes’ résumé isn’t world-beating (we are talking about a projected No. 10 seed here) but it has enough on it (including road wins over Creighton and Indiana that are starting to look good again) to stay just clear of the real bubble.
How Ohio State can lock up a bid
As I see it, there are two ways Ohio State can secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
1. Beat Wisconsin
This one is pretty simple. Beat a ranked Wisconsin team in the regular-season finale — without Wesson, no less — and the Buckeyes have nothing to worry about.
2. Do enough in the conference tournament
This is obviously not ideal, but it’s where Ohio State is at right now. The Buckeyes will almost certainly face Indiana in an 8-9 game in the Big Ten tournament, with the winner advancing to face No. 1 Michigan State. This is ultimately a pretty good scenario for a couple reasons.
First of all, Indiana is a bubble team itself. Not only does that mean it would give the Buckeyes a win over a decent/solid team, but it would also hurt one of teams competing with them for a spot in the tournament. Would that be enough? It’s hard to say for sure, but probably? In the event that it’s not, however, the second part worth noting is that Ohio State got a lucky break when Michigan State beat Michigan on Saturday to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans are banged up, and Tom Izzo might not be going all out trying to make a deep run when his team needs rest.
So there it is, at least in my opinion. Beat Wisconsin, or beat Indiana and possibly Michigan State. Going winless from here on out likely means an NIT trip.