It has been an oft-cited belief at Ohio State that the Big Ten men's basketball tournament is there for the taking. A down year for the conference, combined with this team’s sporadic ability to rise to the occasion, goes a long way toward justifying such a rosy outlook.
But if the Buckeyes have hopes of an extended stay in Washington next week, their margin for error for the regular season is gone. With two games left and both against teams sporting identical 6-10 conference records, Ohio State has to win tonight at Penn State and at home Saturday against Indiana if it wants to avoid playing the opening day of the tournament.
Doing so would give them a three-game winning streak to end the regular season, provide them with some elusive momentum and mean their postseason would start next Thursday at the Verizon Center instead of Wednesday.
After upsetting No. 16 Wisconsin last Thursday, the Buckeyes aren’t thinking along those lines yet, given how this season has gone.
“Somebody just asked me where we are (in the standings), and I said I have no idea,” coach Thad Matta said Monday. “I know there are so many teams, and I don’t know who plays who and all that stuff. I want to play well (tonight) and see how we do there. Big picture with these guys doesn’t seem to work real well.”
Ohio State hasn’t won three straight since opening the season with six straight wins, but in the nine road games at Penn State in Matta’s first 12 seasons, Ohio State is 8-1.
Since the Big Ten tournament expanded to five rounds in 2015, two teams that played in the first round have advanced to the quarterfinals before running out of gas. No. 13 seed Penn State had the honor two years ago and 12th-seeded Illinois followed suit last season.
Under Matta, the Buckeyes have played on the tournament’s opening day twice. Both times they won the game, going on to reach the quarterfinals in 2005 and the semifinals in 2014. Matta pointed out the obvious benefit of an extra day of rest at home, but sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle spoke beyond his age when looking at the advantages.
“It would just help our bodies,” he said. “You’ve got guys playing 28 to 34 minutes a game, and that extra day, it means a lot. Me and (Jae’Sean Tate), we’ve got some old-man bodies. We’ll be banged up. We’re going to need the extra day. Hopefully, we can get these two and hopefully everything works in our favor.”