Bankers Life Fieldhouse
After beginning the season 14-0, running through a relatively weak non-conference schedule with ease, understanding this team was fairly easy. LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. had entrenched themselves as the go-to players. Amadeo Della Valle had shown his ability to shine from the bench, becoming less a crowd favorite, and more a fully functional Division-1 scholarship basketball player. And then there was Aaron Craft. The rosy-cheeked point guard, long a favorite of fans and commentators alike, would have a burden to bear in the shape of new rules outlawing close-knit defense. Most detractors said that these rules would more or less serve to minimize some of what Craft does best. But in the first 14 games, he proved that speculation about his ineffectiveness was greatly exaggerated.
Game 15 of the year for the Buckeyes was against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Columbus. When Nebraska came to the Big Ten three years ago, the thinking was that they would provide a boost to the conference on the football side, while adding another easy conference win for the Big Ten's basketball big dogs. For two years and one game, that was a fair assumption: the Buckeyes throttled the Huskers 84-53 in a game that wasn't even that close.
From there, however, things went in surprisingly different directions.
Ohio State slogged through its Big Ten slate after the first Nebraska game, going 9-8, playing incredibly up-and-down basketball, including a four-game losing streak in the midst of dropping five of six. One of those losses occurred in Lincoln, a 68-62 defeat, and a dramatic swing in score from the first game against Nebraska just days before. A season finale win against Michigan State was nice, but followed losses at Penn State and at Indiana, two squads having very down years.
Nebraska, on the other hand, finished 11-7 in conference, winning eight of nine to close the year, with wins at Michigan State and against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes finished fifth in the conference, and Nebraska secured a bye in the tournament, finishing fourth.
Did anyone see that coming at the beginning of the season? Not bloody likely. And the matchup this afternoon in Indianapolis showcases two teams looking to gain some momentum heading into Selection Sunday. The Buckeyes are likely already in The Big Dance, but the experts say Nebraska probably needs the win against Ohio State to avoid the NIT. The team with the most to play for comes into the game with plenty of momentum, and will be well-rested. After a coronary-inducing survival against Purdue, Ohio State is most likely tired and probably a bit shellshocked, and still lacking the identity that propelled it to that hot, undefeated start.
Put simply: this is the game that will come to define the 2013-2014 Ohio State Buckeyes.
It is astonishing to think that a Nebraska game, in basketball no less, could inspire that kind of statement, but here we are. For the Buckeyes, the weapons are all there, but each one of them seems to find the most inopportune time to misfire. With the game on the line and points needed in the worst way against the Boilermakers, the Buckeyes had many chances over the last four minutes to seal a win, going up by five and taking the life out of Purdue. Ross led the way, with 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, but that was as consistent as the Buckeyes would get, letting Purdue get back into the game, and giving it a chance to win in the last second. The Buckeyes prevailed by a slim two-point margin, but looked none the better doing it.
That fact won't be lost on the Huskers, a team that has just been good, plain and simple, down the stretch. Fans need to forget the dreadful 8-8 start Nebraska began the year on, because this is simply a different team now than it was in early January. Things are clicking for the Huskers now, and the previously stout Buckeye defense will have to be on high alert to keep with the likes of Terran Petteway, the sophomore averaging 18 points and just under five rebounds per game. But even if the defense clicks for Ohio State, the Buckeye offense will also need to show up in some way, shape or form, to take advantage. Otherwise, after the final seconds tick off, it will be Nebraska headed for its first Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, not the usual suspect that is Ohio State.
Numbers to Know
That was Ohio State's shooting percentage from beyond the arc against Purdue. Coupled with 35.9% overall from the floor, the effort against Purdue was downright bad. They say that teams live by the three or die by the three; Ohio State has survived despite the three, and it did against Purdue. Someone will have to step up from beyond the arc to continue the Buckeyes' Big Ten Title hopes.
The Buckeyes were 16-25 from the charity stripe against Purdue. If you add that to the performance against Michigan State (19-31), Indiana (14-23) and Penn State (18-27) you get this paltry number as the team's FT%. They're called "free throws" but right now the Buckeyes couldn't buy a made foul shot. It was the difference against Indiana and Penn State and was almost the difference against Purdue.
That is Pettaway's combined line against the Buckeyes in their two games this year. He's averaging better than 16 points and four boards in those games, and has only got better since the last meeting in late January. If he elevates his game in the third matchup, Ohio State could be in trouble.
Cast of Characters
He did have one of his patented "Slam" Thompson GIF-able moments against Purdue, but it barely made up for 3-9 shooting from the floor, and 0-4 performance from downtown. For a chunk of games, it looked like Thompson was emerging as the able scoring threat the Buckeyes desperately needed to make a run in March. Now, not so much. He'll need to find some semblance of a shot against the Huskers.
Ross was probably the reason the Buckeyes were able to keep Purdue from the upset, going for a game-high 19 points, and a career-high 15 rebounds. But, like the rest of his Buckeye brethren, up-and-down play has been a factor all year. For a team that has been driving on a rocky road since January, some stability is sorely needed. Ross had a great game on Thursday; if he puts together another one, the Buckeyes will be successful.
Did we mention him yet? We did? Here's reminder number three that this is the Husker who can make the biggest difference in this game. He's an all-conference performer who put up 26/10/2 against a really good Wisconsin team to earn a bye in this tournament. Nebraska will rightfully rely on him to be the difference maker he has been all year.
In the Buckeyes' blowout win in January, Shields had four points, two rebounds and five fouls; he was a non-factor. In Nebraska's win a few weeks later, he had 18 points, nine rebounds and wasn't in foul trouble. Pettaway is the star, but Shields is a more than capable second optoin. If he stays out of foul trouble, and the Buckeyes focus too much attention on Pettaway, it could be the Shavon Show in Indy.