Ohio State Basketball: Sneaky good

Thanks for the marquee win, IU - Andy Lyons

Ohio State got the marquee win it needed in Bloomington on Tuesday. All of the sudden, the Buckeyes are alive in the Big Ten title race, and are playing their best basketball of the year at just the right time.

To say February was a tumultuous month for the Buckeyes would be quite the understatement. After losing too many games they should have (@ Duke, vs a better Kansas team, @ Michigan State) and one, in hindsight, they shouldn't have (@ Illinois), Ohio State entered February with a an uneven but ultimately successful outing at Nebraska, the fourth in a series of relatively easy wins after almost pulling off the upset in East Lansing in January. There was momentum for the Bucks; things were coming together, the defense was clicking, and Deshaun Thomas was back to being a world-beater. The stage was set for a prime-time showdown with arch rival Michigan.

The Wolverines would prevail in overtime, 76-74.

No problem, right Buckeyes? Tough loss, but a loss to a top-3 team in their gym. Now, with five days to rest, the goal was to de-throne the nation's #1 team, Indiana, this time at home. There was a lot to learn from the Michigan OT loss, and surely Thad Matta would have his squad set to take on the Hoosiers before a loud crowd in The Schott.

Indiana got up and never looked back, winning 81-68.

No problem, right Buckeyes? After all, a home date against Northwestern is the cure for what ails. Sure, Chicago's Big Ten Team* always plays the Buckeyes close, but man-for man, the talent scale was firmly tilted in the Buckeyes favor. Northwestern is exactly what they allow so many of: a layup.

*lulz, always and forever.

It took a 12-0 run to end the game for the Buckeyes to prevail, winning 69-59.

No problem, right Buckeyes? Northwestern is never the easy out that we want them to be. They always keep the game chippy and the score close. Sure, the 46% shooting night was problematic. And Thomas going 0-5 from the arc left a lot to be desired. But it was a win, and certainly a good primer for the always tough to beat Badgers in the Kohl Center. But it was a test of the Buckeyes mettle, surely one they had passed.

Buzzsaw engaged, tire fire started, Ohio State loses 71-49.

There was the lowest of low points for this squad, and maybe one of Thad Matta's worst losses as head coach. Three losses (that really could have been four) in four games. Granted, the competition in all four games was stellar, and the Buckeyes were probably out matched in two of the games, outplayed in another and underwhelming in their only win.

But, looking at the next four games, that loss to Wisconsin was exactly what the doctor ordered for this team.

Minnesota, who had opened their year on a 15-1 tear, was the boatrace that the Buckeyes needed in the wake of the beatdown in Madison. The defense was back where they had been in January, holding the Gophers to 22 points in the second half, and took advantage of every single Minnesota mistake, on the way to a 71-45 victory. Four days later, the Buckeyes would welcome then #4 Michigan State into the Schott and, despite the Spartans looking to lock up a #1 seed, come out as the victors, in a big 68-60 victory.

The next win, this time against Northwestern, was almost a facsimile of the two teams' previous effort - close, congested, heartburn-inducing, and, when all was said and done, a ten point Buckeye victory. Three straight wins, all of them of the "good win" variety. But the Buckeyes, despite beating Michigan and Michigan State at home, still were without the marquee win that so many great tournament teams have on their resumes heading into March.

And then last night happened.

Indiana can hang the 67-58 outclassing at the hands of the Buckeyes on a number of things, but the most likely culprit is that their star player, Victor Oladipo, got into foul trouble early and was a non-factor in the first half. The defense of Ohio State was then able to contain the rest of the IU starters and stay with them until halftime. Even with Oladipo back in the second half, however, the tenacious defensive play of Aaron Craft still held one of the nation's best players to just seven points.

When you can hold a likely top-three finalist for the Naismith Award to seven points, in his own building, on senior night, with a shot to clinch an outright conference championship on the line, you are doing something that is not just extremely difficult. What the Buckeyes did against Indiana and Oladipo was reassert themselves on the Big Ten stage, gaining even more momentum heading into college basketball's most important stretch.

Illinois comes into the Schott on Sunday, and this Buckeye team will be hungry for revenge, considering the last time these two teams met, Illinois ran Ohio State out of Champaign on a rail. But more is at stake than just revenge for the Buckeyes, who shot just 33% from the floor and 21% from deep, which led to a 19 point loss. If the Buckeyes can pull out the win against Illinois, then all eyes will turn back to the Hoosiers, who have the daunting task of going into Michigan and beating the Wolverines. Should the Wolverines prevail, then, out of seemingly nowhere, the 2012-2013 Ohio State Buckeyes will be co-Big Ten Champions.

Two things stand out about that sentence. First, the fact that Ohio State must root for Michigan. This is terrible and awful and horrible. And necessary. Second, the fact that this team, left for dead (or a mid-table finish in a strong Big Ten) is just one win and some help away from being crowned conference champion. For a team that a lot of fans (and writers) left for all but dead in a joyless season a month ago, the last four games have proved that an incredible turnaround at an incredible time is just what this team needed to return to form.

The Buckeyes are a win and help from heading to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments as a champion. Do you think any other team in the country is looking forward to seeing them on their line? Not a chance.

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