Ohio State Basketball: Once more unto the breach

Close, but not close enough. - Gregory Shamus

Buckeye Nation had its collective eyes firmly set on all things Signing Day yesterday. Well, not every member. The Buckeye basketball team couldn't care less about football - they're busy preparing for another top-ranked foe.

National Signing Day 2013 is finally over, which means a lot of you (namely several great writers here at LGHL) can take a well deserved, very well earned deep breath. We're done talking about the futures of 17 year old kids who may or may not be the next Heisman Trophy winner, and whether one recruiting service's ranking of four stars is more accurate than another service's ranking of five.

I'm not saying it isn't important. This is the future we're talking about. Recruiting is the lifeblood of the football team, and far be it for me to take anything away from such lofty decisions. But, as one commenter reminded me in the comments (and LGHL commenters are truly the best), we have a top-10 basketball program that is coming off a heartbreaking loss, and still has the bulk of their important games forthcoming.

This Sunday is no exception.

I drove past The Schott yesterday, and on the South side of the building on Lane Avenue, I saw something that I never thought I would see, in all my years as a Buckeye fan. For on the Wednesday before a Sunday game against #1 Indiana, there were tents lined up. With actual people in them. Freezing their butts off for the chance to cheer and cheer loud for the Buckeyes. There will be more tents coming, as the week turns into the weekend, and eventually, at 1:00pm on Sunday, two of the best squads in the Big Ten (and therefore the country) will continue the tone set on Tuesday night in Ann Arbor for the rest of the basketball season.

The Michigan game was difficult to swallow for me. A lot of commentary has been written about how much of a moral victory it is, playing the former #1 team in the country to overtime and losing by two in their gym. Yes, this is a good sign, considering it took a 20-point lead to ensure the Buckeyes would be able to stomach a dramatic Michigan comeback in the first game in Columbus. But even in lieu of playing the Wolverines that close on the road in Ann Arbor, especially after the failure of imagination in the inability to get Deshaun Thomas, the team's best player, a single touch in the entire overtime period, I'm not any more confident in this team's long term viability.

I like Titus as much as the rest of you, but I can't agree with his thesis here. While true that two oft-discussed Buckeyes, Amir Williams and LaQuinton Ross played career games, and Craft was as astute as he's ever been on defense, that is the kind of effort it took for Ohio State to lose a game. Titus concludes that he's "been saying all year that if Ohio State could get everything clicking, they have the pieces necessary to make a national championship run." This is entirely possible, but considering the effort necessary just to play with a better team and lose, I'm less optimistic. At least for now.

There were rumblings on twitter throughout Tuesday night that the game had the feel of a Regional Semifinal game in the tournament - every possession was important, every miss was costly, and every momentum change was gigantic. Sometimes, it takes that kind of situation to get up for a game, as Williams and Ross did together for really the first time all season.

Lucky for us, and hopefully for the benefit of Thad Matta and company, the next game is the same kind of situation in almost every way, from the network showing it, to the quality of the teams playing in it.

Indiana has been scary good all year, winning games in bunches, and overcoming losses with gusto. After losing in OT to Butler earlier in the year, the Hoosiers bounced back with three consecutive 30+ point wins and three more to start Big Ten play. Lose at home to Wisconsin, win every game since, including a 37-point boat race at Purdue (a team Ohio State barely beat in the same venue), and outlast then #1 Michigan at home in prime time last Saturday.

Last night was an exception for the #1 Hoosiers, who went from their Assembly Hall to The Assembly Hall, and were beaten on a last millisecond layup in a loss to Illinois. All credit to the Illini for last night - they came back from a twenty point deficit and shocked the Hoosiers, who looked like they were ready to get on the busses for Bloomington at halftime. Now, however, instead of getting a streaking Indiana team, they will get a mighty pissed off Indiana team, desperate to avoid their first consecutive losses of the season. The stakes couldn't be higher.

Just like the Michigan game, the Buckeye have a chance to emerge victorious on a large college basketball stage. And it will take a herculean effort, much like that on Tuesday, to play with the Hoosiers, let alone beat them. But for the Buckeyes, this games is the second in a series of huge games that will truly test the mettle of Matta's team.

It's no secret that the Big Ten is the best conference in country this year, and there really won't be an opponent the Buckeyes can look past for the rest of the year - including the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. There will be a few instances (both Northwestern games, the Minnesota game, the return game against Illinois) where the Buckeyes will be the favored team. But just because you're the Vegas pick doesn't make a trip to Madison or even Evanston any easier. If this team wants to make a splash in spring, it must start with a victory on Sunday in the Schott.

Michigan may yet have provided the jolt this team needed, even in a loss. But regardless of how you feel about the long term prospects of this group, it's clear if this Buckeye team is clicking, they can, at the very least, keep it close with anyone in any gym, in any area code, in any game. And they'll need to be clicking this weekend against Indiana.

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