Tom Izzo praises Chris Holtmann after Ohio State knocks Spartans out of Big Ten Tournament

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

CHICAGO – Once again, Tom Izzo had some words for Chris Holtmann. Or, more specifically, to those who have criticized the Ohio State men’s basketball coach during a difficult season that is ending on an uptick.

Friday afternoon, the Buckeyes became the second double-digit seed to reach the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and the first team to play on Wednesday to reach the weekend with a 68-58 win against No. 4 seed Michigan State. Ohio State, the No. 13 seed, endured a stretch of 14 losses in 15 games but now has won five of its last six entering Saturday’s game with No. 1 seed Purdue.

The Spartans have featured in each of those streaks. Their win on senior day is the lone Ohio State loss during those last six games, and their 21-point win in Columbus on Feb. 12 was the lowest-scoring game for the Buckeyes in 27 years. After that game, a 62-41 Michigan State win, Izzo took a question about reasonable expectations for Ohio State fans when it comes to their men’s basketball coach.

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That exchange was clearly still on Izzo’s mind after Ohio State’s quarterfinal win.

“I know what it's like in Columbus,” Izzo said. “It's not as bad there in basketball as it is in football, but I know what it's like. They had some injuries early. Then they had freshmen. And then they had to deal with freshmen on one side, the transfers in the middle, the seniors on the other side.

“I think the greatest job he did was not this tournament: the greatest job he did was saving them for the last five games of the regular season, even when they lost.”

This late-season surge is becoming an annual talking point after each win Ohio State reels off. Throughout, the players have spoken of “playing the right way” and doing things like trusting the extra pass, minding the details and playing smart while turning their season around. It’s all likely too little, too late as far as the postseason goes (although athletic director Gene Smith has publicly made his case for an NIT invitation), but it’s a reminder of the talent level that has been in this locker room all season.

Despite the losses, Ohio State is two wins shy of an NCAA Tournament berth with an auto-bid that comes with capturing a conference tournament championship.

“We knew we were capable this entire year,” sixth-year forward and captain Justice Sueing said. “We had our struggles, like every team has, but ours is a little bit more. These are guys I'm running with, man, so I'm excited for noon tip-off tomorrow. Yeah, I think we're going to be ready for this.”

Holtmann has frequently discussed his efforts to help the Buckeyes dig their way out of a season going sideways, and Friday he shed more light on what that process was like.

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“I questioned everything,” he said. “I questioned if I was too hard on them at times. I questioned if I was not hard enough on them at times, too emotional. When you go through stretches like this, you're not sleeping. You're not eating. You're in a bad place, so you question everything. I certainly did question if I was getting through to them.”

Those questions seem to have been answered now.

Ohio State makes offensive adjustments against Michigan State

The first game between these teams was historically bad for Ohio State, which needed a late 3-pointer to even get to 14 points at halftime. In limping to 41 points, the Buckeyes finished with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 70.4, their second-lowest in the era that dates back to the 2001-02 season.

In a stretch of poor offensive showings, this was the poorest. But in the rematch at Michigan State last Saturday, the Buckeyes finished with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 120.7, its second-highest in a loss this season. Friday, Ohio State finished at 113.1 points per 100 possessions but won by double figures by holding Michigan State to an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 96.5.

Michigan State Spartans guards Tyson Walker (2) and  A.J. Hoggard (11) look on from the bench during the 68-58 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at United Center in Chicago on Friday, March 10, 2023.

So, yes, the defense was better. But the Buckeyes found ways to attack the Spartans that were different than what they tried to do in the first meeting, and Holtmann took the blame for what went wrong in that game at Value City Arena.

“They were terrific defensively at our place, and to be honest with you, I don't think I had a very good plan to attack them,” Holtmann said. “I just don't think I had a very good offensive attack against their defense. They can be very stifling with how gapped up they are. So we made some adjustments going into game two, and we made some shots.

“So I think it was a combination of I didn't love our attack in game one, and listen, as I said, we're playing way more the right way since that point. That was maybe as low a point as there was in the season.”

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Said Michigan State’s Jaden Atkins: “I really would just say we were kind of giving up too many driving lanes, and we were getting put in tough situations because they were confident from three today. So you kind of didn't know if you wanted to help or try to stop the ball when they were driving. That led to rotations and led to them making shots.”

Bruce Thornton continues strong Big Ten Tournament push

A freshman captain who went through a significant dry spell that coincided with Ohio State’s lengthy losing streak, Thornton led Ohio State with 21 points on 8 of 17 shooting.

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It also marked his seventh straight game in double figures, moving his season scoring average to 10.7 points. In the tournament, it’s been higher: Thornton is averaging 17.7 points while shooting 52.4% (22 for 42) from the floor and playing roughly 35 minutes per game.

He’s also dished out six assists with zero turnovers in each of the last two games.

Ohio State-Michigan State by the numbers

*This is the first time the Spartans have lost their opening tournament game as a top-four seed since 2010, when No. 6 Minnesota upset No. 3 seed Michigan State.

*In the two losses to Michigan State earlier this season, Ohio State held the lead for a combined 5:38. Friday, the Buckeyes led for 33:24.

*Ohio State has never won four games in a Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes won three in 2021 but lost to Illinois in overtime of the championship game.


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