College Basketball
Ohio State inches closer to NCAA Tournament bubble conversation with win over Iowa
College Basketball

Ohio State inches closer to NCAA Tournament bubble conversation with win over Iowa

Updated Mar. 15, 2024 12:16 p.m. ET

For the second consecutive year, Ohio State entered the postseason on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The 2022-23 squad knew it needed to win the Big Ten Tournament to receive an automatic berth. And the 2023-24 group traveled to Minneapolis keenly aware that it probably needs to reach the semifinals if the selection committee is going to take the Buckeyes seriously.

Last year's team won three games in three days before the wheels came off against Purdue in the semis, ending the season at 16-19 overall. This year's team kept its March Madness dream alive by knocking off seventh-seeded Iowa, 90-78, to reach the quarterfinals, where second-seeded Illinois is waiting.

Interim coach Jake Diebler continues to defy expectations since taking over for Chris Holtmann last month, this time orchestrating a wire-to-wire win for a fifth victory in as many games and a 6-1 mark overall. Veteran forward Jamison Battle scored all 23 of his points in the second half to fend off an Iowa team that never got closer than nine points over the final 10 minutes. The Buckeyes shot 51.7% from the field and buried 11 3-pointers in a continuation of the improved offensive performance Diebler has fueled.  

Here are three takeaways from the game:


Youth movement

Ohio State blazed through the first half of Thursday's second-round matchup with Iowa by shooting 17-for-28 from the field (60.7%) and 8-for-11 from 3-point range (72.7%) to take a 43-38 lead into the break. The Buckeyes never trailed from the opening tipoff to the halftime horn.

That the bulk of their early scoring came from underclassmen speaks to the potential former head coach Chris Holtmann, who was eventually fired last month, saw on his roster before the season began. Nobody within the program expected the Buckeyes to struggle as much as they did, ultimately sinking to 5-15 in Big Ten play before the coaching change was made.

One of the players whose role has expanded since Holtmann departed is true freshman Scotty Middleton, a four-star recruit who was rated the No. 50 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite for the 2023 recruiting cycle. Middleton played 10 combined minutes in the three contests prior to Holtmann's firing, but he's averaging 17 minutes per game ever since. And on Thursday evening in Minneapolis, Middleton was red-hot.

Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Iowa Hawkeyes 2024 Big Ten Tournament Highlights

Middleton led all Buckeye scorers with 11 first-half points against Iowa after shooting 4-for-4 from the field, including 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. He launched from 3-point range with confidence to come within two points of his season-high 13 against Oakland on Nov. 6 despite only playing nine minutes in the opening stanza.

The additional scoring punch came from sophomores Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle Jr., who combined for 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half. Then Battle took over to seal a win in the second.

Decision to make

When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith made the mid-season decision to fire Holtmann, who'd won nine of his last 34 Big Ten games dating to last season, it seemed rather far-fetched that Diebler would become a legitimate candidate for the full-time job. The 37-year-old Diebler had been a member of the Buckeyes' staff since 2019 and was elevated to associate head coach three years ago, but conventional wisdom suggested his lack of head-coaching experience might rule him out at a school with the pedigree and financial resources of Ohio State. Put simply, the Buckeyes have the means to pursue more established — and more expensive — options than Diebler.

With another noteworthy win on his résumé, it's fair to wonder if Diebler has done enough to be taken more seriously when the coaching search begins in earnest. The Buckeyes entered the Big Ten Tournament having won five of six games with Diebler at the helm, including a monumental win over Purdue on Feb. 18. They also knocked off Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan and Rutgers to close the regular season on a four-game winning streak that nudged Ohio State toward the NCAA Tournament bubble — an idea that felt unthinkable the day Holtmann, who on Thursday accepted the head-coaching job at DePaul, was relieved of his duties.  

An interesting wrinkle in Ohio State's eventual hiring process is that Smith won't be making the selection given his impending retirement this summer. Instead, the task of selecting Holtmann's permanent successor belongs to incoming athletic director Ross Bjork, who is currently in the same role at Texas A&M. Bjork's penchant for swinging big on coaching hires in the marquee sports could be at odds with Diebler's candidacy.

Regardless of how it unfolds, Diebler has certainly done enough to be considered for vacancies at both Ohio State and other programs around the country.

More of the same

While it seems unlikely that Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will be on the hot seat if the Hawkeyes fail to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, conversations that begin to assess the trajectory of the program are more than fair amid what feels like a plateau.

From 2012 through 2022, McCaffery racked up eight 20-win seasons to establish the Hawkeyes as one of the most reliable programs in the Big Ten. He reached the NCAA Tournament six of the seven times it was played during that stretch, with the 2019-20 edition canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament as recently as two years ago.

But even when the Hawkeyes were at their best, postseason success eluded McCaffery, who has never advanced beyond the Round of 32 in 27 years of head-coaching experience at Iowa, Siena, UNC Greensboro and Lehigh. His seven NCAA Tournament appearances with the Hawkeyes have ended with three first-round exits — one of which was the First Four in Dayton — and four second-round departures. This year's team, which fell to 18-14 overall, seems unlikely to break that trend even if Iowa sneaks into the field.

A change in athletic director earlier this year is one of the reasons McCaffery's status is worth examining. Longtime Iowa AD Gary Barta, who hired McCaffery ahead of the 2010-11 campaign, retired last August. He has since been replaced by Beth Goetz, a relative newcomer to Iowa City after being hired as the Hawkeyes' deputy athletic director in 2022.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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