Hickey: Ohio State, the B1G's weirdest team, seeks to become weirdest in NCAA Tournament
CHICAGO — The most confounding basketball team in the Big Ten continues to confuse — though it’s finally in a good way.
Back on New Year’s Day, Ohio State looked like it could be the best team in the conference. The Buckeyes were 2-0 in the league and 10-3 overall. The losses appeared to be of the highest quality: Duke, North Carolina and San Diego State.
This columnist advised people to bet on the Buckeyes as the most likely team to win the Big Ten title behind Purdue. Which explains the bulk, though not the entirety, of the ensuing time that I’ve spent in the witness protection program.
That advice still looked pretty solid when the Buckeyes went back-and-forth in a 71-69 Purdue win on Jan. 5. The Boilermakers didn’t win until Fletcher Loyer drained a jumper in the final 20 seconds. These were pretty clearly the 2 best teams in the league.
And just like that, they weren’t.
Ohio State went into an inexplicable and all-encompassing tailspin. The Buckeyes dropped to 2-1. And then 2-2. And so it went until Ohio State was scraping the bottom of the barrel at 3-14 in the Big Ten. Considerable and understandable angst build in Columbus over coach Chris Holtmann’s future.
But somehow the Bucks found a spark against Illinois on Feb. 26. They won. And they’ve won 5 of their 6 games since.
“We were capable this entire year,” said senior foward Justice Sueing. “We had our struggles like every team has, but ours were a little bit more.”
Which brings us all the way back to the place where many of might have assumed we would be back on Jan. 5 — Ohio State playing Purdue for the right to reach the Big Ten championship game.
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Ohio State’s path to get here has been unconventional. And it’s only getting more unconventional — because the more talented the player the Buckeyes lose to an injury, the better this team seems to play.
Never say die Buckeyes
When the Buckeyes lost center Zed Key for the season following a Feb. 16 loss to Iowa, it felt like the cruel beating of an already-dead horse.
Ohio State was already toast. Now this? Key was typically Ohio State’s only player on the floor over 6-foot-6.
But 6-11 freshman Felix Okpara is stepping up into his unexpected starting role.
Though he struggled in his first start against Big Ten Player of the Year Zach Edey — talk about drawing the short straw — Okpara has played well since. His 8 points and 8 rebounds against Michigan State in Friday’s quarterfinal was another example.
The latest Buckeye to step up is Roddy Gayle Jr.
Gayle started in place of freshman star Brice Sensabaugh, who is Ohio State’s leading scorer and likely the only 1-and-done prospect on the roster. Sensabaugh exited Thursday’s game against Iowa complaining of knee soreness, and was held out of Friday’s game for precautionary reasons despite wanting to play.
Holtmann hopes to have Sensabaugh back against Purdue. But Gayle handled himself pretty well against Michigan State, draining 3 3-pointers and scoring 15 points.
Holtmann attributes the success of his unexpected starters to giving them minutes throughout the year — even if the results weren’t exactly paying dividends at the time.
“My AD [Gene Smith] kept saying ‘Play them early, play the freshmen early,'” Holtmann said. “Playing them has given them some confidence at this point in the season that we really needed.”
Massaging the message
Holtmann hasn’t been near a hot seat in his 12-year coaching career, so it goes without saying that this has been a jarring season for him. Never has he doubted himself with such frequency. Which means his message for the Buckeyes has been a bit of a moving target.
“I questioned everything,” Holtmann said. “If was too hard at times, not hard enough at times, too emotional. When you go through stretches like this, you’re not sleeping, you’re not eating. You’re in a bad place, so you question everything.”
But it turns out the message need not be a mystery. Little nuggets of positivity when things weren’t going well blossomed into self-belief. Ohio State went from playing well in segments of games to playing well for entire games.
And now the Buckeyes are back to actually winning games.
“I think what we tried to do is celebrate small steps of quality play,” Holtmann said. “And we started celebrating that more. A good 5-to-10-minute stretch of playing the right way, and really, really celebrate that and build on it. I think this has been the result.”
If Ohio State wins the next 2 games, it will be the strangest team in this year’s NCAA Tournament field. An 18-18 power conference team with a bizarre seeding profile that no favorite will want to see. Not with as hot as the Buckeyes are getting.
“We went through a big slump, but we belong here,” said Ohio State freshman guard Bruce Thornton “We’re going to keep working and keep surprising people.”