COLUMBUS — The end-of-year gauntlet hasn’t been easy for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are set to close out the regular season against Illinois on Saturday at 4 p.m. inside the Schottenstein Center and on ESPN, marking the end of a brutal finishing stretch for the No. 7 team in the country, one that featured games against three of the top 10 teams in America.
Ohio State is on a three-game losing streak entering the final game of the regular season, but a win over the No. 4 Illini could enhance the entire mood of the program if it can get a win and claim some confidence back before the postseason. The Buckeyes aren’t making excuses for their three losses. But they also understand how tough the Big Ten can be.
“You’re trying to balance areas that you need to do better, not making excuses for areas that you have not played or performed well in, and also recognizing the stretch here is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I have not been a part of anything even close to a closing stretch like this. … We’ve got to play better and also have some perspective, as well. Unbalanced schedules are a part of this 20-game schedule so you end up playing some teams more than others and it just so happens that the top of our league, with the exception of one team, we’ve played twice. And it just so happens where as the calendar fell, it came here at the end. Hopefully we’re tough enough to manage it.”
Ohio State opened as a 1.5-point favorite over the Illini for the showdown Saturday, but before the ball is tipped, Lettermen Row has more on how the Buckeyes handled their time off this week.
Buckeyes healthier after week without games
Ohio State has had six days between games for the first time all season, an opportunity to become healthier overall before the regular-season finale and into the Big Ten Tournament.
Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes certainly used that chance to refresh before March Madness.
“Health-wise, we’re better,” Holtmann said. “We’re not where you’d love to be, but most teams aren’t at this point. I think most every teams, not every team because there are some teams that have had very healthy seasons, but between a few guys just not feeling themselves and then obviously Kyle [Young]’s still recovering. But I think our guys are better than they were, and that’s the encouraging thing. They’re better physically than what they were a week ago.”
Refreshed, the Buckeyes could have some new energy as they close out the regular season.
Chris Holtmann stumps for Buckeyes inclusion on all-conference teams
Chris Holtmann has always went to bat for his players, and he’s not stopping this time of year.
Holtmann believes he and the Buckeyes have two stars that should be in the running for first-team all-conference selections. In the loaded Big Ten, those spots are ultra-competitive. But Ohio State certainly has two players with unique cases of their own, especially leading scorer and do-it-all forward E.J. Liddell.
“I believe he’s a first-team all-league performer,” Holtmann said. “And I believe he’s deserved that. I really do. I believe Duane [Washington Jr.] has earned serious consideration. Obviously we’d like to finish well and give ourselves a chance, but when you look at our schedule, who we’ve played in the league twice and our overall schedule, I believe that those guys, I believe what I said. E.J. is deserving of that. I really do. I believe Duane deserves serious consideration.
“We’ve made that evident in everything that we can do. Both guys have improved tremendously, but they also both need to play better on both ends. They both understand that.”
Buckeyes playing for seeding in Big Ten, NCAA Tournaments
Ohio State has preached a need to take every day one at a time during this successful season and never look too far ahead. But the Buckeyes are now entering the final game of the regular season, a game that carries weight for both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes currently hold the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament for next week, but with a win and some help, that can change. They also currently are projected as a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but that could certainly change, too.
Still, the Buckeyes have had success by never looking ahead this season. And they can’t change that now.
“I think you’re always trying to strike that balance, and I’m not sure that I did as good of a job here in the last couple of weeks,” Holtmann said. “You want to emphasize games, the importance of games, the importance of all that. But the reality is the day-to-day, the moment that you’re in, the commitment to getting better, really is most important. I think that has to continue to be our focus. Our guys, they aren’t unaware. They understand everything and they understand Senior Day and all that goes in that. … We’re going to have to play, I believe, as well as we’ve played all year. And I think our guys are aware of that.
“Our focus this week has been trying to get better.”