Buckeyes lose chance at outright title

As they pushed in the direction of a third straight Big Ten regular season championship, the upcoming conference tournament and the NCAA tournament beyond that, the Buckeyes were forced to take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, and they did not like what the ledger showed them.

After their 63-60 home loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 26, Ohio State still trails Big Ten leader Michigan State by two games, with two left to play in the season. The Buckeyes and the Spartans appeared headed for a showdown on the final day of the season in East Lansing, where the title would either be divided, or decided.

Following the loss to the Badgers, however, that scenario does not come into play. The best Ohio State can do at this point is share the title, and the Buckeyes will need some help to make that happen.

Ohio State must get past that Feb. 29 meeting with the sometimes dangerous Northwestern team, and watch the Spartans lose to Indiana on the road the day before, for the two to meet in the ultimate pressure cooker on the final day of the season. The Buckeyes will need to upset the first-place Spartans to take a share of the conference crown.

Should that materialize, however, it won’t play to the Buckeyes’ strong suit since Ohio State has performed poorly too often in pressure situations in the Big Ten this season.

Coughing up the Wisconsin game in the closing moments is just the most recent example of this ailment.

The Buckeyes lost at Indiana in their first conference road test on Dec. 31, were flat and clumsy in a loss at Illinois on Jan. 10, and stumbled at Michigan on Feb. 18. On the non-conference side, the Buckeyes were soundly beaten at Kansas in mid-December.

Now Ohio State has to travel to Evanston and face Northwestern, a team fighting for its life to make a first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. Regardless of the outcome there, Ohio State’s recent performances indicate the Buckeyes will not be in any sort of comfort zone when they end the season at Michigan State.

Ohio State will have to look to the Big Ten tournament as the place to get back on track. Otherwise, this year that carried so much promise could have a rather abrupt end.

NOTES, QUOTES

Thomas’ forced shot proves costly

–Ohio State sophomore F Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 23 points in the Feb. 26 loss to Wisconsin, but he forced an off-balance three-point try in the closing moments that wasted an opportunity to push the game to overtime.

–The Buckeyes had their two lowest scoring games of the season in their recent Big Ten battles with Michigan State and Michigan — both losses. Ohio State score just 48 points against the Spartans and only 51 against the Wolverines.

–PG Aaron Craft has been named a first-team Academic All-American. He is the first Buckeyes basketball player to win the honor since Bill Hosket in 1968, and the only sophomore to make the first, second or third teams this year. Craft has a 3.89 GPA as an exercise science/pre-med major.

BY THE NUMBERS: 9 — The Buckeyes missed nine of their 19 free throws in the 63-60 loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 26.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s not just important for me to play well — it’s important for the whole team.” — Ohio State sophomore F Deshaun Thomas, who has had big scoring games in recent Ohio State losses.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–at Northwestern, Feb. 29

KEY MATCHUPS: The Buckeyes meet a Northwestern team that is extremely dangerous because the Wildcats can taste the first NCAA bid in school history, and a win over Ohio State would guarantee the invite. Northwestern leans on senior F John Shurna, whose shooting touch makes the opposing defense guard him beyond the three-point line. He averages better than 20 points per game and will be a tough assignment for F Deshaun Thomas or G William Buford. Northwestern G Drew Crawford is a solid scorer, with better than 16 ppg. The Buckeyes won’t shut down Shurna or Crawford, but keeping them from having a career night will make a difference in this one.

–at Michigan State, March 4

KEY MATCHUPS: The Spartans have already clinched at least a share of a Big Ten title, and could be playing the Buckeyes with the outright crown on the line. Michigan State senior F Draymond Green has made a strong big for conference player of the year honors over the past month, so matching up on him will be a tough assignment for either F Deshaun Thomas or C/F Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes really struggled against Michigan State’s length inside in the earlier meeting this season, a stunning 58-48 Michigan State win on Feb. 11. Ohio State’s guard are going to have to make the difference in this game, with PG Aaron Craft playing near mistake-free basketball, and G William Buford showing he can score on the road when the pressure is on him.

FUTURES MARKET: With only one senior on the roster, G William Buford, the Buckeyes will return essentially the same team for the 2012-13 season. The issue Ohio State will face as soon as the season ends is how many players from its talent-laden group will be leaving, seeking more playing time elsewhere. As has been his pattern in his time in Columbus, Ohio State coach Thad Matta has shortened his bench as the season wore on, and now plays only seven guys unless foul trouble forces his hand. There are several players who are likely to transfer, with G Jordan Sibert and F J.D. Weatherspoon the leading candidates. With ultra-talented freshman LaQuinton Ross expected to take Buford’s place in the playing rotation, there won’t be many minutes for Sibert or Weatherspoon in the future, if Columbus remains their home.

PLAYER NOTES

–C/F Jared Sullinger tweaked his ankle late in the Feb. 26 loss to Wisconsin. Sullinger, who had just eight points and six rebounds in the game, stayed on the floor following the injury but was limping through the end of the game.

–F Deshaun Thomas scored 23 points in the 63-60 loss to Wisconsin, for his against Michigan in Ohio State’s 56-51 loss to the Wolverines, marking the 25th double-figure scoring game for Thomas in the Buckeyes’ 29 games to date.

–F Evan Ravenel’s one free throw was all the scoring Ohio State got from its bench in the loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 26.