Rob Oller: Confounding Buckeyes need guards to lead the way for NCAA tournament success

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

If you have this Ohio State men’s basketball team figured out, give me a call because my stock portfolio could benefit from insider trading.

I know, such “tips” are illegal, but so is the way the Buckeyes yo-yo their fans into believing their team can win the NCAA Tournament, then severely strain that belief before restoring faith again.

Of course, this is one of the two major Ohio State sports we’re talking about — football being the other, duh — so outside of 1960, 1968, 2002 and 2014 the more common trick is to get Buckeye Nation’s hopes up only to dash them on the rocks of Cincinnati (1961-62), Michigan (1969 and 1990s), Florida (2006 and ’07) and a few others. 

Will this March be any different? You might as well ask “Will COVID-19 ever end?” Yes (vaccines!) and no (booster shots forever?)

In other words, no one knows, including the Buckeyes, and they would be lying if they said otherwise. What is known is that no second-half lead is safe with OSU, but also no deficit is too large to overcome. Within reason, of course.

But finding that reason is like pinpointing one’s back pain. Is it the hip? The knee? The neck? Is it the defense? The poor shot selection? Kyle Young’s knocked-around noggin?

But things are trending up. After four consecutive losses to end the regular season, agitated fans wondered what in the wide world of meltdowns was going on. Then coach Chris Holtmann sprinkled magic dust on the way OSU closed out games.

Poof, instead of blowing late leads and losing, the Buckeyes blew late leads and won, picking off Minnesota and holding off Purdue and Michigan until running out of gas against Illinois on Sunday.

The Illini, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (Ohio State is a No. 2 seed), led the Buckeyes by 17 in the first half but needed overtime to escape 91-88. If you bleed scarlet and gray, that should be seen as progress. Your team just checked the gut-check box.

Duane Washington Jr., who scored a career-high 32 points in a Big Ten tournament final loss to Illinois on Sunday, will be key to Ohio State's fortunes in the NCAA Tournament.

But what should really excite those looking forward to the spring game in 30 days — as my neighbor Frankie likes to remind me: “priorities” — is that Ohio State looks increasingly strong where it matters most.

Guards are the gold bars that afford deep advances into March, and while the Buckeyes’ backcourt is not Fort Knox, it is rich enough for this offense to make a run. (Defense is another matter, but weather is warming, birds are chirping and a dissection of defensive lapses can wait until the temperatures drop again.)

It's a shame if you missed Ohio State’s hopscotch to the Big Ten championship game. But I get it. The old ticker can only take so much, and these Buckeyes push heart palps to the limit.

Chief among the players making fans (and Holtmann) grab their chests is Duane Washington Jr., of whom it is said, “He never met a late-game, three-point shot he was not willing to attempt. From anywhere. And even with a five-point lead and 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock.”

Rob Oller

Washington mostly gets a bad rap. His propensity to play hero ball has diminished substantially this season, especially during the Big Ten tournament (and specifically against Michigan). Washington, point guard CJ Walker and Justice Sueing, a forward who handles plenty of guard responsibilities including ball-handling, were never better than during the past week, and if their strong play continues the Buckeyes will be a tough out over the coming weeks.

Which of the three is the most important? Tough call. Washington is the scorer, Walker the patient distributor and Sueing the role player who is at his best when grinding into tough, tight spaces.

Scoonie Penn does not hesitate to single out Washington as the key to Ohio State dispatching No. 15 Oral Roberts on Friday and after that surviving and advancing.

Penn was the point guard on the 1998-99 team that reached the Final Four. One year earlier, with Penn ineligible after transferring from Boston College, Ohio State finished 8-22.

“I’m a believer that guards win in March … reason being the coaches run less offense and rely on their guards to score and make plays,” Penn told me. “Our backcourt should be good with Washington and Walker. Being a fifth-year guy, Walker has a lot of experience, but OSU’s success will rely on Washington playing well or not. They go as far as he takes them.”

There it is. Definitively. So keep an eye on Washington. And on the weather. At this time of year, temperatures and leads change quickly.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD