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Column: The next few weeks have to go nearly perfect for Ohio State

The women’s basketball team is on the brink of losing a home NCAA Tournament game, and need two strong weeks to turn it around.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Women’s basketball is a fast growing sport. This season, multiple teams are selling out arenas for the first time in years, and the quality of the Big Ten has potentially eight teams going to the jewel of the basketball season: The NCAA Tournament.

For folks new to NCAA women’s basketball this season, the women’s game works a little bit differently than the men’s tournament. Instead of random, mid-sized cities hosting early round games, the top 16 ranked teams by the NCAA host the first two full rounds of the tournament.

The Ohio State women’s basketball team is currently No. 16 on that list. That puts the Buckeyes at a four-seed right now, but there’s plenty of basketball left that could swing that ranking in either direction.

Ok, so Ohio State doesn’t have to be perfect over the next three weeks, but there needs to be an improvement if they hope to keep that NCAA game or two at the Schottenstein Center — and it won’t be easy.

Ohio State has four more games in the regular season, and three of those come against teams ranked in the AP top-25 poll. For head coach Kevin McGuff and the Buckeyes, winning all four games is the ideal outcome, but its not the only avenue to a top-16 spot in the NCAA rankings.

Of the three games, beating the Penn State Nittany Lions — who are 13-11 and 4-9 in conference play — on Thursday, Feb. 16 is a must. Not only is it a must, but it should look like Ohio State’s 93-63 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Its the other three games that will not only give the Buckeyes the most trouble, but have the severest impact on their tournament seeding hopes, and it begins Monday.

On Jan. 26, the Scarlet & Gray took a four-point lead into halftime against the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Indiana. Then, out of the halftime locker room came the second worst scoring quarter for the season for the Buckeyes. Ohio State was outscored 27-6 in the third quarter, where the Buckeyes went into a lull against a team who picks lulls apart.

If the Buckeyes don’t win the rematch against Indiana, a close game through four quarters and a narrow defeat against the No. 2 team in the country isn’t the worst thing in the world. For Ohio State it’d be a marked improvement.

Then there’s an away trip to Ann Arbor to face bitter rivals in the Michigan Wolverines. The Maize & Blue are a side who’s jumped the Buckeyes in the AP Poll and look for revenge against the Scarlet & Gray after a New Year’s Eve defeat in Columbus. Michigan is on a three-game winning streak right now, and a win over Ohio State could propel them into the fourth spot in the standings, coveted for its double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.

This one is a must win. The Wolverines didn’t make the top-16 of the tournament, and losing to a side below the Buckeyes could spell disaster — especially depending on how the games against Indiana and Penn State play out.

The game that might show what Ohio State is made of the most is on the final day of the regular season, when the No. 8 Maryland Terrapins travel to Central Ohio on Feb. 24. This one has the most impact because of what happened to the Buckeyes the last time these two sides played.

On Sunday, Feb. 5, Ohio State not only lost, but lost big. A 34-point defeat to the Terrapins in College Park, Maryland. Even with guard Jacy Sheldon returning from an injury that kept her out of competition since Nov. 30, the Buckeyes never looked like they could challenge the former heavy hitter of the Big Ten.

Should the Buckeyes get that victory, a top-four spot in the Big Ten tournament and a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament looks better for Ohio State. That’s of course considering how the three games before it fall.

After the regular season is said and done, the basketball of course isn’t over. If Ohio State stays in the top four, they don’t have to play in the Big Ten Tournament until Friday, March 3, missing the potential for a four-day streak of games.

The Buckeyes’ current fourth position gives them the winner of the fifth seed and whoever makes it out of a 12 vs. 13 matchup on Wednesday of tournament week. Should the standings stay the same, that’s likely another game against the fifth ranked Wolverines.

Win that, and there’s whoever is the one-seed: likely the Indiana Hoosiers or Iowa Hawkeyes.

Wednesday’s win against Minnesota wasn’t a heavyweight battle of two teams destined for deep tournament runs; The Gophers are third from last in the conference. But the convincing win, with the Buckeyes going up 39 points in the fourth quarter, shows that Ohio State might have flipped the switch.

In their first matchup of the season, coach McGuff’s side went down against the Gophers and needed a double-digit comeback to win in Minneapolis. That was two weeks before the Buckeyes lost four out of five.

If Ohio State can duplicate their intensity from Wednesday, and they can reach that next level they need, it’s coming at the right time.