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What’s still at stake for Ohio State hoops down the stretch?

The Buckeyes only have two games left on the regular season schedule, and they can't afford to take their foot off the gas.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s Ohio State men’s basketball team came out of nowhere to take the world by storm. After winning seven-straight games in the sport’s toughest conference, the Buckeyes had jumped all the way up to No. 4 in the AP Poll, and were now staring a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the face as the regular season was winding to a close. At one point there was even a chance that Ohio State could win the Big Ten title if a few things broke its way, but since then things have changed.

This past Sunday, we saw one of the best games of the college basketball season when the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines came to town. In an offensive showcase on national TV, the Buckeyes came up just short against Juwan Howard’s group in a 92-87 affair. The loss was nothing to scoff at, as Ohio State played exceptionally well aside from a few devastating mistakes late in the game, and Michigan looks like a team destined for the Final Four. In a matchup that could've gone either way between two very talented teams, there was little cause for concern following the Buckeyes’ first defeat since Jan. 19.

Thursday night’s contest, however, was a bit different. In its last road trip of the regular season, Ohio State lost a 71-67 contest to a surging Michigan State team. While this was definitely an upset in favor of the Spartans, there were a few factors at play here that led to the puzzling outcome.

Firstly, Tom Izzo has clearly lit a fire under his team. Despite holding just a 7-9 record in conference play, Sparty has won each of its last three games — a truly impressive run with wins over Indiana, No. 5 Illinois and now No. 4 Ohio State. Michigan State is playing for its NCAA Tournament life, and a win on Thursday was obviously much more important for the Spartan’s postseason dreams than it was for the Buckeyes. This isn’t to say that OSU wasn’t motivated to win, but it certainly wasn’t life or death for Chris Holtmann’s group as it was for MSU.

Secondly, the officiating in last night’s game was dreadful. Ohio State did not lose solely because of poor calls by the referees, but it did not help the cause. For starters, just before the end of the first half, Duane Washington Jr. knocked down a contested bank shot buzzer-beater three from a few feet beyond the arc. The ball clearly left his hands before the shot clock hit zeros, but after an almost instantaneous review, the officials called the basket no good. This, in addition to a number of missed calls down the stretch, ultimately led to Holtmann being ejected following two technical fouls as he tried to stand up for his guys.

Be that all as it may, Ohio State has now lost each of its last two games. There are only two regular season contests remaining on the schedule, and they are against a pair of incredibly tough top 10 opponents in No. 9 Iowa and No. 5 Illinois. With the dream of winning the Big Ten regular season title now off a thing of the past following this pair of losses, what is left on the table for the Buckeyes as they look to close out the year strong?

For starters, Ohio State will still be looking to snag a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, which is awarded to the top four teams in the conference standings. Currently, the Buckeyes sit in third place behind only Michigan and Illinois, and are a half game ahead of Iowa with a full game up on Purdue. You want to be as well rested as possible and play as few games as you can in the B1G Tourney, so it will be imperative that Ohio State wins at least one of its next two matchups in order to secure the double-bye and put themselves in the best position moving forward.

After that, Holtmann’s group will try and get themselves back into position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The loss to the Spartans will likely drop them a few spots in Monday’s AP Top 25 release, and as a result will knock them off the one-line. However, Ohio State still has one of the best resumes in the country, owning the most Quad 1 teams of any team in college basketball with nine on the season. If the Buckeyes knock off both Iowa and Illinois, it will give them another pair of Quad 1 wins, and it will be nearly impossible to keep them away from a No. 1 seed. If they split the two, they may have to win a game or two in the B1G Tourney to solidify their spot depending on how the rest of the teams fall.

Ohio State cannot afford to get complacent now. They could lose out and still comfortably make the NCAA Tournament, but you want to go into the postseason playing your best basketball. Holtmann will have to try and get his team to regroup quickly and look past the Michigan State loss as a fluke, as there is little time to rest with an angry Hawkeyes team on the docket this Sunday. This closing stretch will not be easy, but it will say a lot about this Buckeyes unit if they can finish off an impressive campaign with a pair of massive victories just before postseason play.