Where Ohio State's season goes from here remains to be seen.
By ZAC JACKSON FS Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio State faces an important game on Thursday night.
And then another one Sunday, and another one next Wednesday, and a week from Sunday ... you get the idea.
With a two-game losing streak -- the program's first in four seasons -- the
Buckeyes (17-6, 7-4 in Big Ten play) are looking for a get-well game, and they just might get it Thursday night against a banged-up and reeling Northwestern team.
In the bigger picture, though, the Buckeyes are just looking for a win and to build positive momentum going forward. Ohio State enters the night in fifth place in the rugged Big Ten after losing to top-five teams Michigan and Indiana last week. After the Northwestern game, Ohio State visits Wisconsin on Sunday.
Minnesota and Michigan State visit Columbus next week. They all count, none will be easy and Ohio State isn't dead yet.
Unless it loses to Northwestern, of course. Or on Sunday in Madison, which is kind of a make or break game. Wisconsin, probably the Big Ten's surprise team at 8-3 in conference play, is at Minnesota on Wednesday. Until two weeks ago, Minnesota was the surprise team. Now, the Gophers are unranked and have slipped to 5-6 in conference play.
Below are three scenarios regarding where the Buckeyes go from here, how each could play out and what each would mean for the Buckeyes in the postseason, both in what shapes up as a memorable Big Ten Tournament and in what could be as wide-open an NCAA Tournament as we've seen in years.
THE IDEAL SCENARIO: A RUN STARTS NOW
Northwestern is down to seven scholarship players for tonight's game. The Buckeyes are angry, more athletic and though they've struggled with Northwestern's patience and 3-point shooting the last two years, Ohio State should have too many horses tonight.
Wisconsin might be the Big Ten's loudest road environment, but the Badgers' preferred style of game actually fits this Buckeyes team better than it has in many years. Ohio State was able to shake Wisconsin in the final minutes in Columbus a few weeks ago, and if Deshaun Thomas can have another big game, Ohio State can win on Sunday.
At Wisconsin and at Indiana March 5 are the two remaining brutal road games. Win the first one, catch Minnesota at the right time next Wednesday and find a way to derail Michigan State on Feb. 24, and the Buckeyes would find themselves with a bunch of a momentum and every right to believe they can finish strong, even if they can't or don't catch Indiana (22-3, 9-2) in the conference standings.
The goal for Big Ten placing is the top four; those four get first-round byes and avoid a Thursday game at the Big Ten Tournament. Given the overall strength and depth of the league, a top-four placing in the Big Ten should mean a top four (or better) seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Of more importance there is that there are NCAA first-weekend pods being played in Detroit, Dayton, Ohio and Lexington, Ky., this year, creating a possible true home-court advantage for a number of Big Ten teams. Also, a regional will be played in Indianapolis, and that's quite a carrot to chase.
The best teams in the Big Ten should be among the best teams in the NCAA bracket.
"When the time is right, you can definitely bring that up to the players," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "Now is probably not the time."
THE WORST SCENARIO: LIMP TO THE FINISH
Now is not the time to talk postseason because the Buckeyes just need a win. And then another.
"As head coach, my expectations are getting this team to play best it can possibly play," Matta said. "My mindset is that there are things we've got to do better. There's a ton of basketball still to be played."
Twenty-three games in, the Buckeyes are still looking for a second consistent scoring option to complement Thomas, the Big Ten's leading scorer. Opponents are daring almost any Buckeye not named Thomas to shoot jumpshots, and that's proving to be a sound strategy.
Ohio State is as athletic and defends as well as any team, but just struggles to score. There aren't any horrible losses on this team's resume, but there are tough games ahead. Nothing from last Sunday's Indiana game indicated that Ohio State can beat the Hoosiers the next time around. The Buckeyes close the season with a revenge game at home vs. Illinois, but the Illini are dangerous when shots fall and they can force the type of game Ohio State isn't comfortable playing.
What if Ohio State just isn't one of the best four teams in the Big Ten this season? The next two Sundays could answer that question.
SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE: OSU IS GOOD, JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The Buckeyes got blitzed at Illinois in early January, and Indiana brought its A-game and steadily pulled away last Sunday. With the exception of one stretch vs. Kansas back in December, they've been right in every minute of every other loss. This is a battle-tested team, but is it a team good enough to win late February and March battles against really good teams?
Losses at Duke, vs. Kansas, vs. Indiana, and at Michigan in overtime are far from embarrassing. It's a credit to Matta, his staff and the work they've done that Ohio State is used to be being atop or in the top three of the Big Ten, not in fifth. It's going to take everyone involved for the Buckeyes to put together a strong finish.
Ohio State could probably use another high-profile win (or two) to solidify a top-four NCAA seed and a chance to play in Dayton or Lexington.
"Even when we were in first place I never looked at the standings," Matta said. "We've been lower (than fifth) and I never looked. This team and every team across the board is trying to get better. You start looking outside and let something interfere with your day to day, then you're in trouble.
"We are in a tremendous league. There are lot of great basketball teams in this league. I told the team before the season started this year would be about getting knocked down and getting back up.
A win at Wisconsin Sunday changes the outlook, but not necessarily the future. The Buckeyes have been knocked down, and with seven regular-season games left, they need to score some big wins, soon, to set up a chance to close the season on a high note.