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Column: Ohio State’s season comes down to a matchup against Northwestern. If they lose, there is nothing left to salvage

With a season many have already deemed over, the Buckeyes have one last favorable opportunity to build confidence down the home stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team is still in the middle of a rough stretch, going 1-9 in their last 10 games on top of a current four-game losing streak. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the season is far from over with eight games to go.

Ohio State will not have an easy route, but every game remaining on the schedule is winnable. Those games down the final stretch include matchups against Northwestern, Michigan State twice, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois and Maryland. The Buckeyes play five of eight games at home, where they are 8-3 on the year. If the team can find some momentum, they are still talented enough to give opponents issues on any given night.

With the end of the year fast approaching, starting with a game against Northwestern that they’re favored in is a great place for the Buckeyes to look to build confidence and get back on track. Ohio State still ranks 16th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Even with the scoring issues the Buckeyes have at times, that is still a number that can start translating to wins.

The problem for Ohio State during this 1-9 stretch is they have been incredibly inconsistent shooting the ball, which is where the problems start and stop. In the one win against Iowa, the Buckeyes shot 56.3 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three point range. Led by Sensabaugh going 10-of-12 from the floor, it was the best offensive output of the season from the Buckeyes. This is not the level that should be expected, but the way the ball moved led to 15 assisted baskets, which is what Holtmann’s offenses have been built on.

Outside of the Iowa game, Sensabaugh is the only player comfortable initiating offense. Every time the Buckeyes play, it feels like pulling teeth for anybody else to create their own offense. Sueing has been passive on top of inconsistent, Likelele has scored two or less points in six out of 10 games, and so on. This is amplified with one of the more reliable offensive players in Key still on the mend and playing with the restrictive brace. This puts more pressure on everybody down the roster — which has not worked well.

And that is where this matchup against the Wildcats is so important to this final stretch.

Already with more wins than last year, Northwestern led by coach Chris Collins has found more success with their transfer losses. From an offensive standpoint, the scoring goes through their two guards Chase Audige and Boo Buie, the latter being the leading scorer on the team. With Ohio State’s newly announced team captain Bruce Thornton and Isaac Likelele, there is a defensive matchup that had a lot of success in the first matchup.

The two Buckeyes held the leading Wildcat scorers to a combined point total of 26 on 28.1 percent shooting last time the two teams met. This is the type of game that can reestablish Ohio State’s defensive confidence back. They’ve had success here before. Over the last four losses, the Buckeyes have not defended the perimeter well, and they also struggled against both dominant bigs they played in Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson.

Northwestern doesn’t play with a big of that caliber. Their starting center Matthew Nicholson is averaging just over six points, six rebounds and one block per game. This will be Key’s first opportunity since his injury to establish the painted area against a player he should be able to overmatch physically.

Looking at the remaining schedule, Northwestern is the most winnable game remaining. If this team is going to turn it around, it starts with a win over Northwestern like their first win over them in Evanston. They can find both offensive and defensive confidence against the Wildcats, which can start a stretch run.

Right now, the Buckeyes are squarely out of the NCAA Tournament and don’t have a lot of data points on their record. Last season, the Michigan Wolverines made the tournament as an 11-seed with a 19-15 record. That means the Buckeyes are not out of the field yet.

With eight games left on the schedule and the conference tournament remaining, they don’t need to be perfect. They will have opportunities for multiple Quad-1 and Quad-2 wins down the stretch. A 5-3 record is probably enough to get them on the bubble heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

A win against Northwestern would not get them back in the conversation, but it would definitely be the nail in the coffin if they were to lose this game. With rematches against Purdue, Maryland, and Illinois — whom the Buckeyes to lost by single digit margins — flipping those results back in their favor would go a long way. Adding to that games against Iowa – their best offensive performance of the year – and a tough matchup against Penn State will give the Buckeyes ample opportunity to salvage this season.

With most of the fans feeling like this is a lost season, the Buckeyes are not there just yet. Resident Buckethead Connor Lemons has pointed out many times that Ohio State is ranked 363rd in KenPom’s luck rating. As a glass half-full writer, that has got to flip at some point, and why can’t that flip happen for the stretch run?

Looking at the other half of the glass, if Ohio State does lose, which is a likely scenario given how the Buckeyes have played in their last 10 games, the season is over. There is literally nothing they can do after that outside of winning the Big Ten Tournament or going undefeated down the stretch that would get them into the Big Dance. This would also signify the worst season since Thad Matta’s last year in charge, and would likely point to being one of the worst seasons since 2003-04.

To avoid that, Holtmann has hit the reset button with a midseason captain vote, his ejection against Wisconsin, and the insertion of Eugene Brown into the lineup more. None of the three have changed much – we’ll find out about the captaincy tonight – making it feel like Holtmann is grasping for straws. But under the surface of it all, is a basketball team with six new faces playing significant roles.

They are always a game a way from gelling, and basketball has always been a game of runs. If Ohio State can find some consistency offensively, and improve on their 85th ranked defensive efficiency rating, there is a team that has the talent to give anyone in the Big Ten trouble on a given night. That’s not enough to be confident, but it should be enough to not throw a the season just yet with a very winnable game at home.

For the Buckeyes, the season will not be defined by this matchup against the Wildcats. This would just be another bullet point on the list of failures in 2022-23. But a game where Ohio State is favored at home against a team they beat handedly in the first matchup is exactly what the Buckeyes need right now. If the Buckeyes come out lethargic and undisciplined defensively, then there is probably no saving this group.

This is the end point of the season with a loss, so there will be ample pressure and the critics won’t be quiet if this game ends with Ohio State being defeated again.