The same ugly offense that’s plagued No. 20 Ohio State throughout the Big Ten season led to the Buckeyes losing to Michigan last Tuesday and losing what was probably their last real chance to compete for the conference title in the upcoming stretch run.
Mathematically, the Big Ten race can still go about a hundred ways. Realistically, with that offense and three home conference losses already in the books — the most since Thad Matta’s first season as coach in 2004-05 — the Buckeyes have to worry about themselves first and what any other team is doing later.
There’s still plenty to play for, though, specifically a top-four finish in the Big Ten and the first-round conference tournament bye that would come with that. Wins in general and quality wins, specifically, would help Ohio State’s seeding for the NCAA tournament.
The Buckeyes are almost certainly headed there — a 15-0 start, even one that provided little in the way of quality wins, helped that. Ohio State ranks No. 19 in ratings percentage index and bolstered its resume with road wins at Iowa and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes enter this weekend in fifth place in the Big Ten, just behind those two teams.
At 6-6 in conference play, the Buckeyes are closer to last place than they are to first, currently occupied by Michigan and Michigan State at 10-2. Ohio State is just a game and a half out of third place, currently occupied by 7-4 Iowa. If Ohio State can win at last place Illinois (3-9) Saturday and Michigan beats Wisconsin Sunday, Ohio State would move into that fourth slot.
No win should be taken for granted, though, considering Ohio State has lost at home to Penn State and at Nebraska. But the remaining schedule says Ohio State has a chance to both move into the top four and build some momentum. Ohio State’s next four are at Illinois, home vs. Northwestern, home vs. Minnesota and at Penn State.
The Buckeyes then close the season at Indiana on March 2 and at home vs. Michigan State March 9. Michigan follows its date with Wisconsin by hosting Michigan State next Sunday. Michigan won the first meeting in January at Michigan State, 80-75.
BY THE NUMBERS: Statistically, the Buckeyes are right in the middle of conference-play scoring stats at an average of 67.8 points per game. They just aren’t shooting the ball consistently — they were 3-of-20 in the Michigan loss — and are at 33 percent on 3-point tries for the conference season.
Even the scoring average is a little inflated by overtime losses at Michigan State and vs. Penn State. Sixty points weren’t near enough to beat Michigan last Tuesday but 59 won for Ohio State at Wisconsin. Winning ugly can happen — just not this ugly.
Lenzelle Smith is just under 38 percent on 3-pointers for the season but his 3-for-9 against Michigan marked the first time he’s hit three or more against an opponent with a winning conference record. LaQuinton Ross, the Buckeyes leading scorer and top 3-point shooter at 40 percent on the year, was 0-for-4 against Michigan and has gone seven games without having at least three 3-pointers made.
The Buckeyes have the third-best scoring defense in Big Ten play, giving up an average of 65.1 points per game.
HE’S BACK: Michigan State senior and Dayton, Ohio native Adreian Payne is one of the Big Ten’s most talented and most unique players.
His team really needs him.
Payne missed nearly a month with a foot issues, but he’s turned in three big games since returning. The 6’10 Payne is Michigan State’s second-leading scorer and rebounder for the season and was all over the floor in an 85-70 win over Northwestern on Thursday night 20 points and 14 rebounds.
"I found a way to hold him out maybe a week longer than I could have," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I think that helped because there’s not any worry about his foot at all. It’s amazing. I’m amazed though at his conditioning. Here’s a kid that two or three years ago couldn’t get up and down the floor maybe 15-18 minutes a game.
"Now he’s carrying our team."
Izzo’s team has been riddled by injuries but is getting help from Ohio natives besides Payne, too. With senior point guard Keith Appling out for "maybe a couple weeks," Izzo said, with a wrist injury, Huber Heights Wayne High School alum Travis Trice has moved into the starting lineup. Michigan State has used 14 different starting lineups this season.
Trice has 15 assists and zero turnovers in Appling’s absence. He’s scored in double figures in the last two games, too, 13 in a last-second loss at Wisconsin last week and 11 vs. Northwestern. Medina’s Kenny Kamisnki is shooting 48 percent from 3-point land for the Spartans, who play Nebraska this weekend and at Purdue next Thursday before their rematch at Michigan.