CHICAGO — In a hallway outside an Ohio State locker room that had been both celebratory and relieved, Chris Holtmann knew the question was coming.
There was no bubble debate with the Buckeyes a year ago, so Holtmann hadn’t faced the nonstop speculation about the NCAA Tournament during his first campaign with the program. And even if he has been consistent in downplaying the Big Dance bid through the good times and the bad for Ohio State and rarely showed much annoyance about the topic, clearly he won’t mind if the massive win over Indiana ends the debate for good.
It should, for the record. The Buckeyes and Hoosiers were essentially in a loser-leaves-the-field showdown on Thursday afternoon at the United Center, and Holtmann clearly had his team ready to go from the outset in a 79-75 win. And while that definitely won’t let him relax ahead of Friday’s meeting with top-seeded Michigan State, the conversation about his program can at least change moving forward.
“I expected it,” Holtmann joked. “I certainly feel like our body of work speaks for itself, I really do. And obviously Kaleb [Wesson] makes a difference, for sure. We saw that, I think as much defensively as offensively.
“But we’ve had some high-level wins, and that’s a really good team we played and it was playing exceptionally well.”
That opponent wasn’t strong enough to knock off the Buckeyes, who once again looked like a worthy inclusion as an at-large entrant to the NCAA Tournament. With Wesson back in the lineup after a three-game suspension, the backcourt contributing one of its finest outings of the season and a consistently rugged defense, that version of Ohio State has done enough to earn an invitation after knocking off Indiana.
How far can the Buckeyes go? Is there more damage they can do in Chicago? That’s difficult to predict with Holtmann’s club, because it still remains a flawed, inconsistent team — which, by the way, is true for all of the teams fighting over the final few spots in the NCAA Tournament field. But Ohio State’s resumé does shape up favorably thanks to wins like the demolition of Iowa before Wesson’s suspension, the pair of victories away from home against the Hoosiers and the early-season hay that was made during the non-conference season.
Ohio State isn’t done yet in Chicago, of course. And it would clearly like a bit of revenge for the two losses earlier this year to the Spartans, both in games where the Buckeyes stood toe-to-toe for at least 30 minutes before fading late. And maybe with that bubble burden now off their shoulders, Ohio State can find a way to deliver a complete performance and keep building a bit of postseason momentum.
“[The Spartans] are terrific,” Holtmann said. “They’re an elite team, can get to a Final Four, can win a national championship. They’re deserving of everything that’s come their way.
“We’ll need to play exceptional basketball for 40 minutes. But we’re excited about the opportunity.”
The Buckeyes obviously had to earn it. And if Chris Holtmann gets that kind of effort against the Spartans, he might be talking more about the NCAA Tournament again anyway — this time for a higher seed.
The Pick: Ohio State 65, Michigan State 64.