The No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team has certainly made a comeback in the last month, and this hot streak is the one Ohio State fans have been hoping for as the squad wraps up the regular season.
After a serious slump in January, which included one stretch where the Buckeyes lost six-of-seven games, Ohio State has emerged with a four-game win streak which has included three victories over ranked opponents and one dominant conquest on the road. With these wins in the books, the Buckeyes rose to the No. 15 spot in the latest NET rankings. All told, Ohio State has truly flipped the script from the early Big Ten season, now having won six of the last seven as the Buckeyes seem to have gotten hot at exactly the right time.
The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament opens in Indianapolis next Wednesday, but Ohio State won’t start play until Thursday or (hopefully) Friday. That’s because the Buckeyes still have a narrow shot at a top-four seed and two byes, though they’ll need some help along the way to get there.
Now, the Buckeyes prepare for their final regular season game of the year as they hit the road to take on No. 16 Michigan State at 4:30 ET in East Lansing.
Ohio State’s recent win streak has proven that the Buckeyes can win the close game (e.g., Michigan, Maryland) as well as put away an opponent while maintaining a big lead early (e.g., Nebraska). However, what they’d yet to show recently was a true comeback win.
That changed Thursday when the Buckeyes defeated the No. 23 Illinois Fighting Illini 71-63. Despite being down 37-30 at the half, with the Illini leading by as many as 11 and holding a lead well into the second half, Ohio State surged late at home to secure the eight-point victory.
In Thursday’s matchup, junior forward Kaleb Wesson emerged once again for the Buckeyes, pouring in 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting. And once again coming off the bench to provide an injection of scoring for Ohio State was freshman forward EJ Liddell, who totaled 17 points on the night. Junior point guard C.J. Walker added 15 of his own, also off the bench, though 11 of those points came from the free throw line as Walker connected on just two field goals all night. Senior Andre Wesson played all 40 minutes for the Buckeyes, adding eight points.
Ohio State finished the game shooting 38.6% from the field while giving up 43.6% to Illinois. The Buckeyes won the rebound battle 38-31, and had 11 turnovers to Illinois’ 14. A crucial point in such a tight game, the Buckeyes shot 28 free throws (making 24) compared to just 10 for the Illini.
Additionally, despite the three-point shot having proven a critical part of Ohio State’s success thus far this season, the Buckeyes also proved they could win without the three, as Ohio State was just 3-for-15 from beyond the arc.
With injuries to forwards Kyle Young (high-ankle sprain) and Alonzo Gaffney (illness), it certainly helped that guard play has been outstanding for the Buckeyes in recent weeks, and that Liddell has stepped up to such a degree as he has.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is well on the verge of winning its third-straight regular season conference championship. That opportunity is surprising, given the overall strength of Maryland and the fact the Spartans lost four of five in the middle of February. However, Tom Izzo is not one to let his teams get down when it comes to March, as Michigan State hasn’t missed the big dance since 1997. Like the Buckeyes, Sparty is surging at the right time, with Michigan State jumping to the No. 7 spot in the latest NET rankings.
On that note, Tom Izzo has been at the helm in East Lansing since 1995. Through 24 seasons, Izzo has won nine Big Ten regular season titles, tournament titles or, on three occasions, both. Truly a living legend. Izzo has also taken his team to eight final fours, winning a national title in 2000.
On the court, Izzo once again has a superstar in Cassius Winston — the senior point guard who has stuck with the team despite an opportunity to enter the draft last season. Winston was the 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year and hasn’t slowed down in the 2019-20 campaign. In his final year in East Lansing, Winston is averaging 18.3 points per game, which is good for third in the conference behind Iowa’s Luka Garza and Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu. Winston has also been a threat from range, connecting on nearly 43% from beyond the arc — a Big Ten-best. Rounding out the point guard’s skillset, Winston is averaging 5.9 assists per game.
Xavier Tillman has also been a boon for the Spartans this season. In addition to his 13.7 points on 55% shooting (!), Tillman is pulling down 10.4 rebounds per game — also a top-three mark in the Big Ten — while averaging three assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocked shots per game.
Overall, the Spartans are second in the conference in scoring offense, averaging just under 76 points per game on 46% shooting. Sparty also boasts the best field goal defense in the conference, allowing just 37.6% of all shots and a mere 28.7% from range. Michigan State is also tops in the conference in blocked shots per game (5.0) and assists per game (17.7).
While the Buckeyes’ recent win streak has been something to celebrate, Michigan State has been riding its own in recent weeks. After falling at home against No. 9 Maryland Feb 15, Sparty has posted a 4-0 record, with wins at Nebraska, home against No. 18 Iowa, on the road against Maryland (the Terps’ first loss and so far only loss at home this season) and, most recently, on the road against No. 20 Penn State.
The three recent wins in particular are feathers in the cap for Michigan State’s tournament resume, with the Spartans sitting as high as a No. 3 seed according to some projections. Of notable importance is the victory over Maryland which, like Ohio State’s win over the Terps, gave the Spartans a signature conference win. However, the one-upper in favor of Michigan State is the fact Sparty accomplished this feat on the road.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 27.4%
This afternoon marks the first and, obviously, only time Ohio State and Michigan State face off in the regular season this year. Per the usual, it doesn’t help that the Buckeyes are facing Izzo’s squad on the road, and Ohio State isn’t getting a ton of respect in the lead up to this game.
On the whole, it bears emphasizing just how loaded the conference is this season, and just how much Big Ten teams have beaten one another up. Regardless, up to 11 Big Ten teams (more likely 10) could make the 68-team NCAA Tournament field. That number feels right, since, in the latest AP Poll, the Big Ten had eight teams ranked, with Maryland holding the highest spot at No. 9. Michigan State has a lot to play for this afternoon, as Sparty is still actively fighting for the top-seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
For the Buckeyes, this afternoon marks a chance to end the regular season on a high note, but they’ll have to overcome an opponent that, so like themselves, is getting hot at just the right time. Additionally, they’ll have to keep playing through adversity, With Kyle Young day-to-day, and with freshman point guard DJ Carton still out, the Buckeyes have grown used to operating with a team that’s not 100%. Players like Liddell will need to continue to step up, not only today, but also with the start of the Big Ten Tournament next week.