There is no protective bubble that talk of the NCAA Tournament can’t puncture.

For the final weeks of the regular season, Ohio State has been bombarded with questions about its March Madness standing. Results have been scrutinized, performances have been categorized and all of it has led to the Buckeyes facing as much uncertainty as there can be regarding their postseason fate.

If there is any consensus about the NCAA Tournament picture, though, it is viewed through a Big Ten tournament matchup Thursday afternoon between Ohio State and Indiana. With the Buckeyes and Hoosiers both hovering on the line between the “last four in” and the “first four out” in projections, this game is as much of a play-in for the NCAA Tournament as one exists.

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And that’s something the Buckeyes haven’t turned a blind eye to.

“We’re not immune, right?” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said Tuesday. “People have TVs and (phones). It’s part of it. I think everybody understands it.”

As each conference tournament has concluded, sending its champion to the tournament as an automatic qualifier, the corresponding statuses of both Big Ten teams are among the first to be mentioned. Late Tuesday, after Saint Mary’s knocked off Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament final, the Buckeyes were moved from the last team inside the bracket projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to the first team out.

That lasted not even 18 hours, when North Carolina State beat Clemson in a second-round ACC tournament game and Lunardi said it had moved the Buckeyes back in at the expense of the Tigers. 

>> Read more: Previewing the Ohio State-Indiana game

All of which makes a win against Indiana vital to Ohio State’s tournament hopes. Should the Buckeyes win, they would be 2-0 against the Hoosiers, making it all but guaranteed that Indiana could not make the NCAA Tournament at their expense. Similarly, should Ohio State lose and find itself on the outside looking in with no more games to play, it’s difficult to forecast a way it could still climb back into the picture.

“With every game it’s important, the next game you want to play to win,” sophomore forward Kyle Young said. “For sure it’s a game we need to go in a little bit more focused and ready to get this win, because I think it’s important because we’re on the bubble to get in.”

The mere acknowledgement of the tournament bubble stems from the fact that Holtmann has continually preached to his players not to lose sight of the goal of playing meaningful games as the season comes to a close. It has been a healthy attitude against the backdrop of a three-game losing streak to close the season for the Buckeyes, who otherwise looked assured of reaching the tournament for a second consecutive season.

Now, with the season on the line, it has to translate into a win.

“We’re trying to figure out, how do we play well in this opening stretch of the game?” Holtmann said. “Obviously, that takes great preparation. Beyond that, the unspoken is always there. Guys understand what tournament play is all about. If we don’t have great preparation and play with tremendous urgency, then it’ll be a short stay.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy