After coming away with a victory in one of the uglier games all season Saturday night against Nebraska, Ohio State basketball more than likely punched its ticket to the NIT, but there is still a whole lot of work to do if the team hopes to go dancing. Luckily for the Buckeyes, the final three games of the regular season shouldn't be too tough.
Wait, what's that? Ohio State's last three games are against Michigan State, Iowa, and then Michigan State again? And both the Spartans and the Hawkeyes are ranked in the top 10?
Okay, so the Buckeyes have a tall task ahead of them if they hope to end up on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Tom Izzo's squad comes to Columbus on Tuesday ranked No. 6 in the country and winners of six of its last seven games. Not to mention they run out a National Player of the Year candidate who is one of the frontrunners to be Big Ten Player of the Year.
But Ohio State has won four in a row, and despite the amazing 1-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio it put up on Saturday, the defense held the Cornhuskers to 27 percent shooting, and four players scored in double-figures.
The team also is just one game removed from its best performance since the calendar page turned to 2016. A week ago against Michigan, in the infamous "courtside seats" camera angle game, the Buckeyes played excellent defense, holding the Wolverines to under 40 percent shooting from the floor and 20 percent from the three-point line. Five players in scarlet and gray scored in double figures in that one.
That kind of defense, coupled with the balanced scoring the team has gotten of late, is what it's going to take if Ohio State hopes to pull off an upset against Michigan State. As has been the case all season, there's no way of knowing which Buckeye squad will show up on Tuesday night. If it's the same one that beat Michigan and Kentucky, it could be a fun night in Columbus.
Numbers to know
The Spartans are tops in the country in assists. This is a team that shares the basketball, to the tune of more than 20 per night. Michigan State also doesn't turn the ball over much, ranking second in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. Team leader Denzel Valentine is tied for fourth in the country with 7.3 dimes per game, and has had 10 or more in each of the last three games. Given Ohio State's propensity to play one-on-one ball and turn it over, the defense is going to have to be ratcheted up that much more if it hopes to slow down a very unselfish team in green and white.
Michigan State is third in the country in three-point shooting, knocking down over 42 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. Senior Bryn Forbes is particularly lethal, making over 48 percent of his three-point attempts, but the Spartans have four players in the regular rotation who shoot it better than 40 percent. Compare that to the Buckeyes, who have only Kam Williams shooting above 36 percent from deep. This is where the defensive side of the ball will again be vital, as Ohio State holds opponents to just 32.6 percent three-point shooting.
Despite all of the ups and downs and inconsistencies this season, the Buckeyes are currently in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. At 10-5 in conference play, they sit a half-game ahead of the 9-5 Spartans and just two games back of first place Indiana. The top four teams all get a bye in the Big Ten tournament, and have a better chance of winning a game or two. That's important to Ohio State's NCAA Tournament hopes, as the team will likely have to pair at least one win in the final three regular season games with a couple of wins in Indianapolis to have any shot of making the field of 68.
Cast of characters
Killa Kam is coming off a game he'd probably like to forget. The sophomore from Baltimore was held scoreless for the first time in conference play against Nebraska, going 0-for-4 from the field and registering no other stats besides a a foul and a turnover. Williams has been an offensive spark for Ohio State off the bench, particularly during the Big Ten season, as he's been a double figure scorer in seven of 15 games. Michigan State is 14th nationally in scoring defense, and given the Buckeyes' sometimes anemic attack, it is imperative that Williams rebound from the last game and come out firing.
Remember when Ohio State fans thought Amir Williams was an enigma? Lyle may be the most polarizing player on the roster. Inconsistency despite obvious talent and a diverse skillset have made the Evansville, Indiana product a constant source of debate. The Nebraska game was a perfect microcosm of the freshman's season, as he led all scorers with 19 points, but not a single one of them came before halftime. Now seemingly firmly back in the starting lineup at point guard, Lyle must be a playmaker like the second half and overtime against the Huskers if the Buckeyes are to pull off an upset.
Despite a possible conspiracy surrounding a knee injury in late December, Valentine has been nothing short of one of the top players in the country as a senior. The leading scorer in the Big Ten at 19.7 points per game, the kid from Lansing is a walking triple-double threat every time he steps on the court. In addition to averaging the aforementioned 7.3 assists a game that are tops in the conference, Valentine is also seventh in the Big Ten in rebounding at 7.7 boards a night. Ohio State's length on defense, particularly with Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop, is about the only hope it has of slowing him down.
If Valentine is the heart of this Spartans team, Costello is the soul. The senior from Linwood, Michigan has become well-known for his many celebrations, but he's also getting it done on the court. Steady improvement in his four years at Michigan State has him averaging career-highs almost across the board. Costello averages 10. 2 points and is second in the Big Ten with 8.2 rebounds a game, also providing about a block and a steal a night. The Buckeye big men have shown a propensity towards foul trouble this season, and will have their hands full with Costello.
How to watch
Game time: 9:00 p.m. ET.
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1