For Ohio State, the NCAA Tournament was an opportunity to start anew. A top 15 team to open the 2022 year, the Buckeyes finished the season in a tailspin, dropping 4 of their last 5 games before the Big Dance. Three of those losses were against teams that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes then drew an opening-round matchup with Loyola-Chicago, the kind of opponent every power conference team fears — long on recent success, short on expectations. But a funny thing happened on the way to a season-ending loss Friday: The Buckeyes got downright defensive.

In their 54-41 opening triumph over Loyola, Ohio State held the Ramblers to 27% shooting, the first time since February 21st that OSU held an opponent under 41%. In fact, it was a season-low for OSU opponents. Loyola guard Lucas Williamson, one of the most dangerous scorers in mid-major basketball, never got untracked, shooting 1-for-10 for 4 points. The Buckeyes always had one and maybe multiple defenders within arms’ reach. Loyola’s last sub-30% shooting game: 5 years ago.

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For OSU, another key was establishing post star EJ Liddell, who struggled down the stretch against teams that dared other Buckeyes to beat them. The junior star had a quiet start but made sure he took care of business down the stretch. With 16 points and 10 rebounds, Liddell was consistently the best player on the floor.

Perhaps the most surprising part of OSU’s triumph? By relying heavily on defense, the Buckeyes camouflaged a poor perimeter shooting game. OSU won despite connecting on just a single 3-point basket (in 15 attempts). OSU had never made less than 2 treys on the season. Coming in, the Buckeyes were 3-3 when making 5 or fewer 3-point baskets. For a team that shot 37% from downtown on the season (28th-best in college basketball), one has to wonder what happens if the Buckeyes combine Friday’s defense with a typical day of long-range shooting.

What could well happen is an upset of No. 2 seed Villanova, which has to beat No. 15 seed Delaware on Friday. Villanova is 5-6 this season when their opponent shoots 37% from 3-point range. If OSU can maintain their defensive focus, have a typical shooting game, and key Liddell involved, a Sweet 16 run looks very suddenly possible.

But on Friday afternoon, with their opponent to be determined, all of the details seemed a little insignificant. What mattered was this: Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes had a tough regular season, and never quite seemed to gel. But in the end, maybe they were just waiting for the right time to shine. Maybe they were just waiting to get defensive.