CHICAGO — There is nothing guaranteed for Ohio State, and that reality appeared to be hitting home in a somber locker room for a group with a long two days ahead of it.
The Buckeyes had accomplished exactly what they needed to one day earlier, knocking Indiana off in their Big Ten Tournament opener which would seem to be enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. But after again falling at the hands of Michigan State on Friday, Ohio State sat largely in silence and started figuring out what it would do with the 48-hour stretch ahead of it before learning its postseason fate.
To be sure, there was confidence that good news is coming. But as one of the last at-large teams likely to sneak into the field, this weekend isn’t likely to be comfortable for the Buckeyes ahead of Selection Sunday.
“I believe [it’s enough], sure, with our body of work from opening night,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “When a coach says, ‘Body of work, opening night’ — well, our opening-night win [at Cincinnati] was pretty good. But, yeah, I certainly feel confident in our body of work. And the league we played in is top to bottom the best in the country. I really believe that. I think the metrics would show that.
“Coaches say that all the time: That’s the best league in the country. But I think our metrics would show an objective look at that, that it is the best.”
The Buckeyes had their struggles at times in the Big Ten, and the Spartans offered another reminder that there is work to be done before Holtmann has a consistent contender in the conference on his hands. Ohio State, though, is in really solid shape as it builds for the future — and for now, there’s more basketball ahead of this team, and it should be in a better mood by Sunday evening.
What else was there to learn about the Buckeyes in the Windy City? Here are a couple more lessons Lettermen Row picked up heading into the next phase of the postseason.
Kaleb Wesson needs to be on floor for Ohio State
The memory of the three-game suspension was obviously still fresh as Kaleb Wesson made his return on Thursday against Indiana. And Ohio State didn’t need a reminder of just how important it is to have him on the floor on Friday when foul trouble limited his impact yet again. It’s a bit obvious that having the best scorer and rebounder on the team available is a big deal for the Buckeyes, but his value goes well beyond his personal production. Wesson helps space the floor, creating open shots for teammates on the perimeter. He’s a skilled passer for a big man, which punishes teams who try to double him in the post. And when he’s managing his fouls or getting more consistent officiating, he’s an underrated defender capable of creating problems for opponents on the interior. If the Buckeyes are going to win a game or maybe even two if the matchups break the right way, Wesson needs to be in the thick of it.
Chris Holtmann gets the most out of Buckeyes
The strength and culture of the program becomes even more clear with the kind of up-close look that postseason tournaments provide. The media had seats directly behind the bench, allowing everybody to see that when a player comes off the floor, he slaps hands with every last teammate, coach and staffer before taking a seat. The open locker room gives glimpses at the chemistry and celebration when Ohio State wins, and it shows how invested the players are as they stew on a loss. Chris Holtmann has earned every bit of credit he’s received for what he does schematically in games and for the work he’s done on the recruiting trail. But he might need even more for the relationships he’s cultivated with the Buckeyes, which is a big reason why his team almost never packs it in when the going gets tough.
Ohio State has nothing to apologize for on Selection Sunday
There has been plenty of criticizing the weakness of the bubble teams this year and some clamoring for more at-large spots to go to mid-major programs. But those last few bids annually go to squads which aren’t expected to compete for the national title, and Ohio State didn’t exactly take an easy path to the postseason after building a truly challenging schedule outside of the Big Ten — before having to go through that gauntlet in the deepest league in the country. This isn’t the College Football Playoff where the mission for the committee is to pick teams that can win it all. Thanks to the expansion of the field for hoops, there are always going to be teams just looking to win once to have a full weekend to experience the Big Dance. For Ohio State, this season has already been a success, and doing that would just be a bonus for Holtmann as he keeps building a program that could soon be capable of storming through multiple rounds.