No. 14 Ohio State heads back home in driver’s seat

COLUMBUS, Ohio — No. 14 Ohio State returns home from a big midweek road victory to face Iowa on Saturday in a Big Ten game at Value City Arena.

The Buckeyes’ 64-63 victory at No. 3 Purdue on Wednesday night put them in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten regular-season championship race. If they can win their remaining five conference games, they’ll claim the title.

There’s still plenty of work to be done. Purdue (23-3, 12-1) is tied at the top of the standings with Ohio State (21-5, 12-1), but if both teams finish with the same record, the No. 1 seed in the postseason tournament goes to the Buckeyes based on the head-to-head matchup. The two teams meet only one time this year.

Lurking close behind is No. 4 Michigan State (23-3, 11-2), which plays Purdue on Saturday but does not face Ohio State the rest of the way.

After Ohio State’s game against Iowa (12-14, 3-10), three of its final four games in the regular season are on the road. Those visits are to Penn State, which knocked off Ohio State in Columbus last month; No. 20 Michigan and Indiana.

“We’ve had an incredibly resilient group and we’re going to have to hope that continues,” first-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Our guys know and I’ve reminded them that this closing stretch — Purdue and Iowa playing very well and these games on the road — it’s by far the most difficult that I’ve faced and I think one of the most difficult closing stretches in the league.

“From game to game, we’re going to have to be resilient and in the game we’re going to have to be resilient.”

Ohio State showed that resiliency in the win at Purdue. Bates-Diop scored the winning basket with 2.9 seconds left on a putback to cap a rally from 14 points down with just over 10 minutes remaining. He finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

Bates-Diop continues to lead the Big Ten in scoring at at 20.2 points per game. He’s also third in rebounding with 9.0 per game.

Three other Ohio State players — JaeSean Tate (12.7), C.J. Jackson (12.5) and Kaleb Wesson (10.8) — are scoring in double figures. Guard Kam Williams remains suspended and Andre Wesson again will start in his place.

All five Ohio State starters reached double figures in a 92-81 win at Iowa on Jan. 4.

“When you play a team twice you kind of know each other a little better,” Bates-Diop said. “In the game, everybody knows what they’re going to do and so you don’t have to adapt on the fly.

“We’ve had a lot of growth offensively and defensively since then. That was a long time ago. We’re two totally different teams, but they’re a better team and so are we.”

Holtmann said Ohio State was outplayed in the second half at Iowa and noted that the Hawkeyes have improved since then with a healthier lineup.

“They’re very different now, much harder to play,” he said.

While Iowa is in the midst of one of its worst seasons under eighth-year coach Fran McCaffery, the Hawkeyes are coming off a competitive 96-93 loss at home to Michigan State on Tuesday night.

Forward Tyler Cook led Iowa with 26 points and guard Jordan Bohannon was one of five Hawkeyes in double figures with 17.

“Obviously, we all wish that we could have been playing like this from the get-go,” Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl said. “We’d have a way different season. But at least we were able to show not only everyone else but ourselves that it is there, that we are capable of doing stuff like that.”

The Hawkeyes’ struggles stem from defense. They’re last in the Big Ten in points allowed by a wide margin, giving up 78.3 per game.

Those defensive woes make an upset seem unlikely Saturday, but Iowa has won two of its last three games at Ohio State.

“We’re able to play with anybody in this country when the effort’s there, when the efficiency’s there and everybody’s playing together,” Pemsl said.