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Why the next three games will make or break Ohio State’s season

After hosting Indiana, the Buckeyes will face back to back road tests, which have been historically difficult this season in the Big Ten.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Following Ohio State’s less than thrilling 71-59 win over the Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday night, the Buckeyes improved to 13-7 on the season and 3-6 in Big Ten play. If you’d fallen into a coma in early December and just recently woke up, you probably wouldn’t believe what you’re seeing. Are these the same Buckeyes who were once 11-1 and No. 2 in the nation? The same Buckeyes who pantsed both Villanova and Kentucky? It seems like it was so long ago.

The same personnel, sure, but not the same product. The early season Buckeyes moved the ball quickly and crisply, avoiding turnovers. Those Buckeyes shared the wealth; it wasn’t surprising to see four or more players score in the double digits each game.

The Buckeyes we’re watching now are one-dimensional and disjointed. At times they lack the one thing you simply cannot lack- effort. Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr., Ohio State’s second-leading scorer, saw his minutes disappear in Ohio State’s loss to the Indiana Hoosiers because of what Chris Holtmann called a “lack of effort.” Shortly thereafter, both Washington Jr. and fellow guard Luther Muhammad were suspended for Ohio State’s eventual win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers for “failing to meet program standards.”

While a one-game suspension for 2 of the 13 players on the roster by no means indicates that there is a larger problem, it is concerning that even amidst the team’s on-court struggles there are players who seem to have their heads elsewhere. The Buckeyes, who once were considered one of the top teams in the country, are now holding onto hope just to make the NCAA tournament. Now Ohio State’s coaching staff has to do damage control- making sure everyone’s head is back on straight and that the wins start flowing again.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeyes are less than halfway through their conference schedule, but have done themselves no favors with their 3-6 start in B1G play. A conference championship is probably out of the question, but finishing in the top four or five is not. However, if Ohio State wants to salvage a ship that is already halfway sunk, it needs to start Saturday.

A home loss to the Indiana Hoosiers (15-6, 5-5) would push Ohio State down to 3-7 in B1G play, with two straight road games after that. Even if you split those two games, 4-8 doesn’t look any better than 3-7. That is why the Buckeyes must win Saturday. These next three games will either propel Ohio State to the thick of the Big Ten conference race, or could send them to the basement for good.

Let’s take a closer look at these opponents and break down where the Buckeyes may have advantages/disadvantages:

Indiana Hoosiers

Saturday, February 1, 12:00 p.m. - Columbus, Ohio

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 15-6 (5-5)

AP Rank: Not ranked

NET Rank: 47

KenPom Rank: 41

ESPN BPI Predictor: 80.3% chance Ohio State wins

When these two teams last met, Ohio State held Indiana without a basket for a ridiculous 11:17 a loss. Despite holding the Hoosiers without a made field goal for over a quarter of the game, the Buckeyes shot a paltry 32.7 percent from the field in a 66-54 loss in Bloomington. Devonte Green and Rob Phinisee combined for 32 points for the Hoosiers, as Ohio State consistently had trouble guarding the talented guard duo.

Now, that was only the fifth time all season Phinisee scored in double digits, so more likely than not he will not repeat that output, especially now that the Buckeyes have film to work with. But Ohio State will have to do better limiting Green, an explosive guard who can slash or shoot at will.

I think the Buckeyes will win this game at home, partially because winning on the road in the Big Ten is so difficult, but also because I don’t think Chris Holtmann and Co. will let a must-win game slip away at such a critical juncture of the season.

Michigan Wolverines

Tuesday, February 4, 7:00 p.m. - Ann Arbor, Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 12-8 (3-6)

AP Rank: Not ranked

NET Rank: 34

KenPom Rank: 27

ESPN BPI Predictor: 47.2% chance Ohio State wins

The Michigan Wolverines, much like Ohio State, have watched their stock fluctuate dramatically throughout the season. Despite starting the season unranked, Michigan rose as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll after a blistering hot start that included wins over Creighton, North Carolina, and Gonzaga.

While part of their recent struggles may be attributed to having a first year head coach in Juwan Howard, the Wolverines have also played without their best player, Isaiah Livers, for the past month after he suffered a groin injury in their win over Presbyterian. Livers, a 6’7”, 230 pound forward who shoots 50.9 percent from three and averages 14.1 points per game, may still be out when the Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor next week.

Last year’s sole matchup between the rivals resulted in a 65-49 Michigan beatdown in Ann Arbor. Zavier Simpson led the way for the maize and blue, tallying 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. He also had a big block on Kaleb Wesson, and after the game told reporters (about Wesson), “Guys are tough with their mouth but not with their play.”

Wesson had 12 points in the game on 5-12 shooting, but had three fewer rebounds than Michigan's 6’0” point guard.

For the same reasons I think Ohio State will beat Indiana, I don’t know if they will win in Ann Arbor. Big Ten road teams are 16-53 this year, a 23.2% winning percentage. Michigan has their backs against the wall too, and if Livers is able to play he’ll present a very unique challenge due to his size and shooting ability.

Wisconsin Badgers

Sunday, February 9, 1:00 p.m. - Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Record: 12-9 (5-5)

AP Rank: Not ranked

NET Rank: 32

KenPom Rank: 31

ESPN BPI Predictor: 44.3% chance Ohio State wins

Aside from the Big Ten in general being a nightmare for road teams, the Kohl Center has been especially difficult for road teams. The Badgers are 9-1 at home this year, but just 3-8 away from their home venue. One of those road wins, however, came in Columbus.

The Buckeyes, who were playing without Kyle Young, shot a higher percentage from the floor than Wisconsin, out-rebounded Wisconsin, and received a huge game from Kaleb Wesson, (22 points, 13 rebounds), but could not close the deal in the final two minutes as Nate Reuvers wrestled the lead back from Ohio State with his jumper at the 1:54 mark of the second half. Ohio State would never recover.

This time around the Buckeyes will have Young available, while Wisconsin will be missing sophomore guard Kobe King, who recently chose to transfer out of the program. Additionally, Ohio State freshman guard D.J. Carton announced yesterday that he, too, would be stepping away from hoops for the time being to address mental health issues he has been dealing with. However, unlike King, Carton intends on returning to Ohio State.

While the personnel will be a bit different on both sides of this one, I’m not sure if Ohio State will be able to steal a win in Madison. If the Buckeyes can win two of these three games, they’ll put themselves on a good track to climb back into the Big Ten battle. Anything less than two wins in these three games would put them in a hole that they may not be able to dig themselves out of.

Buckle up, it’s going to be fun! (Maybe)