COLUMBUS — Ohio State played a tough regular-season schedule.
The Big Ten was the best conference in college basketball this year. And 12 of the top 14 teams in strength of schedule are from the best league in the country. The Big Ten has two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, two No. 2 seeds and nine teams overall in the Big Dance.
But that brutal schedule allowed for wins over some of the nation’s best teams — and it gave the Buckeyes a challenge every night in conference play. It also prepared them for what they will see in the NCAA Tournament.
But it doesn’t promise the Buckeyes anything. They have to earn wins in March.
“I hope it really prepares us,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think the one thing you can’t have is this false sense of: ‘Well, we played in a great league, so that guarantees us something.’ Because it doesn’t guarantee us anything. We’ve got to earn whatever it is we get. And just because we played in, I think, a league that is as good as its been in a number of years, it doesn’t guarantee any Big Ten team to perform well in the NCAA Tournament. It’s styles, it’s matchups, it’s how you play and how you perform.
“Having said that, I do embrace the idea of going through a tough schedule and a tough league. It’s a good thing. I think it’s helped us in the past. But we have to be careful as coaches and players that we don’t think it guarantees us anything. It certainly won’t.”
Second-seeded Ohio State knows it has to earn every win in this 68-team tournament, and that starts Friday afternoon against the Summit League champ, No. 15 seed Oral Roberts — a team that features the nation’s leader in points per game. Even in a matchup against a No. 15 seed, the Buckeyes will have to take down a conference champ with an elite scorer. And it doesn’t get any easier from there.
But the Big Ten schedule prepared them for this stretch. Before they begin their run in the tournament, Lettermen Row is breaking down four key questions for the Buckeyes as they gears up for what could be a special few weeks.
Will Buckeyes be physically ready for Big Dance?
The run Ohio State went on in the Big Ten Tournament certainly was impressive. The Buckeyes were able to survive and advance in three straight games to make it to the championship final.
Four games in four days.
Two of those games went to overtime, including Sunday’s thrilling Big Ten title loss to Illinois. After playing 170 minutes of basketball in just four days, tired legs were easy to spot. Ohio State will assuredly use the time between Sunday and its slated Friday afternoon tip-off time to rest up and be ready for March Madness.
Ohio State will need answers on Kyle Young’s availability after he missed the final two games of the Big Ten Tournament due to a concussion. Young’s condition for the tournament — while still unknown — will be key for the Buckeyes, who beat top-seeded Michigan and nearly upset Illinois in the conference tournament without him. But if this team wants to make a run in the Big Dance, Kyle Young needs to be healthy. And the Buckeyes, as a team, need to be fully recovered from last weekend.
Can Buckeyes biggest stars carry load?
Duane Washington Jr. and E.J. Liddell have been the cornerstones of Ohio State success this season. Both players were honored on all-conference teams — Liddell was a first-team selection — and made the All-Big Ten Tournament team for lifting the Buckeyes to three wins in three days. Washington became the team’s leading scorer during the Big Ten Tournament with his 24-point performance against Michigan in the semifinal and a career-high 32 against Illinois to lead the Buckeyes back. Both players are capable of putting the Buckeyes on their back late into March. Can they do it?
Liddell didn’t have a 20-point output in any of the Buckeyes conference tournament games, but his impact is felt on the glass, as well. His ability to be a physical presence as well as an outside threat makes the Buckeyes offense hard to defend. Washington has never seen a shot he doesn’t like, and if he gets hot he can lift the Buckeyes by himself. If the two Buckeyes stars play well, Ohio State has a chance to make a deep run, at least to the second weekend of the tournament.
Do Buckeyes have capable supporting cast?
While Washington and Liddell have been doing the heavy lifting for the offense, Ohio State has found key contributors to help out late this season. Veteran point guard CJ Walker has thrived in his role off the bench to provide offense and hustle plays that can’t be replaced. Zed Key has given the Buckeyes a bigger body to help matchup in the low post. Seth Towns has five double-digit scoring outputs off the bench and can give a spark on any given night. But the most important supporting member of the roster may be Justice Sueing.
The Cal transfer is playing his best basketball late in the season. He’s scored in double-figures in five of Ohio State’s last seven games and has become the third option — and a good one to have. Sueing has been inconsistent for the Buckeyes throughout the season. But he helped them come back from a massive deficit in the Big Ten title game and had 22 points in that game. If that’s the Justice Sueing who shows up in the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes are more than capable of playing late into March.
Will Buckeyes make Final Four run?
Ohio State has the talent to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The combination of star power from Liddell and Washington and the supporting cast together can help propel the Buckeyes. And their tournament draw as a No. 2 seed in the South Region make a tournament run a real possibility.
Potential road blocks against No. 7 seed Florida, No. 10 seed Virginia Tech, No. 3 seed Arkansas, No. 6 seed Texas Tech or any other teams on the bottom of the South Region could create problems. Even Oral Roberts has a chance to give Ohio State struggles. If the Buckeyes take care of business, they could potentially meet top seed Baylor in the Elite Eight with a Final Four berth on the line.
Can Chris Holtmann and Ohio State make a run to the Final Four? That’s the biggest question.