With a number now attached to its name, No. 22 Ohio State has only to look at its opponent Wednesday night for a lesson on how to handle newfound pressure.
It was a season ago that Northwestern found itself the darling of the national spotlight as coach Chris Collins guided the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance. That team finished the regular season 21-10, won two Big Ten tournament games and then its first-ever NCAA Tournament game before losing to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga.
Nineteen games into a season with most of their major contributors back, the Wildcats are 11-8 and considered a long shot to return to the tournament. The transition from the lion to the zebra hasn’t gone easily, and Collins said as much on a Big Ten teleconference in mid-December when his team was 5-4.
“You can’t lose sight of the things that you did when you were the hunter, when you were trying to gain that respect, that chip on your shoulder, that edge, that competitive spirit,” he said. “Those are such big qualities with winning teams. That’s something that maybe we lost a little bit of that edge we had, and all of a sudden you learn some lessons early in the season.”
The question, which will start to be answered Wednesday, is how a similar reversal in fortunes will affect the Buckeyes. Winners of five straight and 10 of their last 11 games, they climbed into the national rankings for the first time since the tail end of Jae’Sean and Keita Bates-Diop’s freshman seasons.
Ohio State’s last 90 games have been played as an unranked team. Coach Chris Holtmann said the addition of two numbers by the team’s name wasn’t addressed specifically with the players, although the possibility was briefly broached after beating No. 1 Michigan State on Jan. 7.
“I hope that our guys feel confident in what we can be,” he said. “If I felt like it got us something at this point outside of maybe some attention, I’d be happier. But right now, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and we’ve got to earn whatever we get.”
The realistic understanding, he said, is that the Buckeyes might expect stiffer competition.
“I think our guys are going to need to be prepared for that,” he said. “We’ll see if we can handle that. We’ve got a really full week ahead of us, but given where we’re at, that’s to be expected. We’re going to get a lot of peoples’ best shot.”
With two-thirds of the Big Ten season still ahead, the national ranking means little from a tangible perspective. But for players such as sophomore Andre Wesson, a Westerville South graduate, it offers a little validation.
“Can’t really put (it) into words,” he said. “Just growing up in Columbus, always hearing about Ohio State and the down years we’ve had, people talking bad about us, it’s just good to be ranked again and have people talking (positively) about us again.”