This season, a clear top tier has developed in the Big Ten.

Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State have looked a cut above the rest of the competition.

Ohio State, on the other hand, has been alone on an island — perhaps not quite at the level of those 4, but definitely a step ahead of everybody else in the conference.

That feels like it has changed following the Buckeyes’ 81-78 loss at Purdue. Even it defeat, Ohio State showed it will very much be a factor in what is developing as a fantastic Big Ten title race.

Buckeyes display some road mettle

You certainly can’t say Ohio State has been disrespected in the polls. The Buckeyes are 16th in the AP poll, outperforming their place in the NCAA’s NET rankings by 5 spots.

The reason for that disparity? Ohio State hasn’t performed as well on the road as it has at Value City Arena.

Value City has been a great deal for its tenants this season. The Bucks are 9-0 on their home floor, including impressive wins over Duke and Wisconsin.

But in order to win a championship, whether in the regular season or in March, eventually a team has to take that performance on the road. And that’s where Ohio State has been lacking.

The Buckeyes lost to Xavier and Florida when they left the comforts of home in the non-conference schedule. They never seriously threatened the hosts in Big Ten losses at Indiana and Wisconsin.

Sports Betting in Big Ten Country

Sports betting in Ohio is officially launching on January 1, 2023.

Pre-registration is now available at FanDuel Ohio for an extra $100 bonus. Take advantage now.

21+ and present in OH. Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.

And it looked as if they were headed right back down that path in Sunday afternoon’s game at Mackey Arena.

With just over 14 minutes left, Ohio State trailed Purdue by 20. The hot-shooting Boilermakers were sending a pretty clear message that the Buckeyes are pretenders, stuck as the lone team in the B1G’s second tier.

Instead, the ensuing 14 minutes showed us who the Buckeyes really are: a serious threat for the Big Ten title.

Ohio State tied the game in the final seconds, capping a stunning 46-26 run. It took a remarkable fallback, buzzer-beating 3 from Purdue’s Jaden Ivey to stick a fork in the comeback.

Malaki Branham could be Ohio State’s X-factor

The Buckeyes, as expected, have been The EJ Liddell Show all season. And Sunday was one of the best episodes.

Liddell’s back-to-back 3s in the final 35 seconds to tie the game had a Reggie Miller feel, only to get 1-upped by Ivey at the other end.

But Liddell’s brilliance is also part of the reason it’s been easy to wonder how good the Bucks are as a whole. They have the feel of a team that can go as far as Liddell can carry them. Which, to be fair, might be very far indeed.

Sunday’s loss provided another glimmer of hope that perhaps that won’t be necessary.

Freshman guard Malaki Branham showed himself to be Liddell’s equal, matching him with a team-high 20 points.

This is not the first time Branham has demonstrated tantalizing talent.

He poured in 35 points in an overtime win at Nebraska. (As a side note, needing overtime to beat Nebraska is another good example of how Ohio State has not been the same team away from Columbus.) Branham also scored 24 in a win over Northwestern.

The road to a Big Ten title does not run through the Cornhuskers and Wildcats, though. Branham had yet to have a true breakout performance against one of the Big Ten’s best.

That changed Sunday. And it could have a transformational effect on the rest of Ohio State’s season.

Liddell was essentially averaging twice as many points as any of his teammates heading into the Purdue game. If the Buckeyes can count on Branham for 14 or 15 points a game, up from 10, it could in turn open up more scoring opportunities for the perpetually hounded Liddell.

Just one more thing …

As promising as Ohio State’s late push at Purdue may have been, there’s one little thing still missing from the Buckeyes’ resume.

That’s actually winning a big-time road game.

It will be awhile before Ohio State gets that opportunity, as back-to-back home games against Iowa and Maryland loom this week. The Bucks travel to Rutgers and Michigan next week — games they should win, though Rutgers is no picnic for any visitor.

It won’t be until Feb. 24 that we will see how far the Buckeyes have really come. That’s when Ohio State visits Illinois in what could be a very consequential matchup in the championship chase.