Not much margin for error in loaded Big Ten

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft (4) and guard Shannon Scott (3) react during overtime against the Michigan State Spartans at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Spartans beat the Buckeyes 72-68 in overtime.

Raj Mehta/Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Two straight losses after starting the season with 15 straight wins is not necessarily a sign of impending disaster for Ohio State’s basketball team.

It’s mostly a sign that navigating the Big Ten schedule could be a brutal journey, one that the Buckeyes are going to have to play much better to survive.

Ohio State used its swarming defense to overcome a 17-point deficit and force Michigan State to overtime before losing last Tuesday. On Sunday, an aggressive Iowa overcame a 9-point second-half deficit and got easy baskets in pulling away for an 84-74 win in Columbus.

The Hawkeyes became the first team to score 70 points on Ohio State in regulation, and Ohio State coach Thad Matta hopes lessons from that game will help his team be better at both ends going forward.

College basketball is hard

-Thad Matta

"The tape showed…some things we have to look at and we have to eliminate," Matta said. "The margin of error is small when you’re playing the caliber of teams we’re playing right now. There are things we have to get addressed.

"You’re gonna have some ups and you’re gonna have some downs. College basketball is a game of runs now. We weren’t able to stop the Iowa run the way we needed to."

The defense saved Ohio State in a late December game vs. Notre Dame and almost saved the Michigan State game. Not only did Iowa keep scoring on Sunday, but the Hawkeyes stifled the Buckeyes by playing almost exclusively a zone defense in the second half. Conference play means familiarity and tight games, and Matta knows his team will have to be better with four of their next six games on the road.

"College basketball is hard," Matta said. "There are a lot of ups and downs but it’s about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and going back into the game. From our perspective, it’s staying positive but demanding and finding ways to continue to grow and connect are things we have to do."

Ohio State (15-2, 2-2) dropped six spots, from No. 3 to No. 9, in Monday’s new USA Today Coaches Poll. For proof of how much polls (don’t) matter, the Buckeyes remain seven spots in front of Iowa.

16-0 Wisconsin is the highest rated Big Ten team at No. 3, one spot ahead of Michigan State. Michigan, which shares the early conference lead with Wisconsin and Michigan State, received votes but did not crack the top 25. The latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) update has Wisconsin at No. 1, Michigan State at No. 9, Ohio State at No. 14 and three other Big Ten teams in the top 40; Michigan is not one of them.

The next time Ohio State plays Iowa is Feb. 4, three days after the Buckeyes play at Wisconsin. Iowa plays Minnesota, Michigan State and at Michigan between now and then.

"This league," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team’s win at Ohio State, "is brutal."

Even Northwestern, which started league play by getting pasted by 27, 23 and 26 points in three games, bounced back to knock off Illinois — which had been No. 23 in last week’s Associated Press poll — on Sunday night.

The Buckeyes started 3-2 in Big Ten play last season, then won four in a row before losing back-to-back games at Michigan (in overtime) and vs. Indiana. Following a mid-December no-show at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes didn’t lose again until the Elite Eight.

"We were in this exact same position last year," Matta said. "The biggest challenge is making sure our minds are where they need to be in order for us to get better. We’re so far from the finish line. To panic is something I wonít do and have never done."

Thursday night’s game at Minnesota suddenly looms as very large for Ohio State.