The improbable Big Ten Tournament run for the Ohio State men’s basketball team continues. With a 68-58 win over the fourth-seeded Michigan State Spartans, Chris Holtmann’s 13th-seeded squad has become the lowest-ranked team in tournament history to advance to the semifinals.
The Buckeyes turned in an extraordinary team effort with three players scoring in double-figures — Bruce Thornton (21), Roddy Gayle Jr. (15), Justice Sueing (14) — and limiting Sparty to just 38.2% shooting from the field despite the fact that All-Big Ten Freshman Team member Brice Sensabaugh was out with knee soreness.
The Buckeyes led for 33:24 of the game and, other than an early second-half run by MSU, were in control throughout. Tom Izzo’s team did out-rebound the smaller and thinner Buckeyes, but only by a 35-33 margin, and OSU shot an impressive 52.6% from distance. I know that when looking back at the season as a whole, it will probably feel like an incredibly missed opportunity — and this run in the tournament might exacerbate that feeling — but whether Ohio State miraculously makes the NCAA Tournament or not, this is a team that deserves to be celebrated, not only for pulling off wins in five of their last six games but for reminding us that we can find opportunities to embrace joy, even with disappointment all around us.
Now, before any of you hop in to start accusing me of some garbage like promoting participation trophies for elite-level college athletics, that’s not what I’m doing here. The main job for all college coaches and athletes is to win, and the Ohio State men’s basketball team — led by Holtmann — did not do nearly enough of that this season. I don’t care how many games you win before or after, only winning one college basketball game during a five-week stretch is unacceptable at any school, and especially at a place like Ohio State.
However, that’s not really what I’m here to talk about today, because — unlike the players and coaches who invest every fiber of their being into the on-court results — as fans, the wins and losses don’t really make that much of a difference in our lives. Sure, the wins make our days a little brighter and the losses a little darker, but on the whole, they don’t fundamentally change our existential realities.
So, while it is normal — and probably even healthy — for fans to engage in good-faith analyses of their favorite teams when they go through tough times, it doesn’t really cost us anything to openly embrace the rare rays of sunshine in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
Case and point: Watching the Ohio State men play over the last two weeks has been really fun. Yes, they are still a sub-.500 team that squandered a ton of talent, but if you watch this collection of guys compete, rally around each other, and celebrate wins that many in the media and fandom have deemed meaningless and you don’t take a measure of pride in their recent successes, you, my friend, are no fan.
We get that this season has been disappointing, but winning four of the last five has been fun.— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) March 9, 2023
And the beat writers covering the team falling over themselves to #WellActually back-to-back B1G Tournament wins just to appease the most venomous voices in the fandom is obnoxious. pic.twitter.com/Tg5PNIIyDw
Friday’s game against Michigan State is a perfect example of that. The Buckeyes played a near-perfect first half, shooting 5-for-9 from beyond the arc and taking a nine-point lead into the intermission. With all of the tumult and vitriol that the team has been subjected to over the past two months, if you can’t appreciate that type of performance, why bother watching? If you can see the energy and excitement that the players have rediscovered toward the tail end of the campaign and all you have to say is, “Why couldn’t they play like this in January?” then — in my opinion — you need to reevaluate your priorities.
Not only did the Buckeyes race out to an early lead on the performances of the veteran Sueing and true freshmen Thornton, but they also withstood an impressive run on both ends of the floor from the Spartans coming out of the break. MSU’s Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser led Sparty to cut the Buckeye lead to just two points. However, Holtmann’s squad rebounded (no pun intended) and was able to build the lead back up to double-digits with 11:29 remaining in regulation.
I listened to a lot of the postgame press conferences during the team’s January and February slump and it was obvious that it was taking its toll on Holtmann and his players. Again, they were the ones responsible for the losing, so I’m not absolving them of that, but it is still painful to watch anyone who so clearly cares come up short again and again.
When you juxtapose that with the celebratory shots of the Buckeye bench or postgame interviews that the OSU head coach has done with Andy Katz, honestly, it’s made me a little bit emotional. I’ve always been a sentimental man, but as I sat on my couch watching Katz interview Holtmann after the Iowa win with tears welling up in my eyes, it reminded me that there are always flowers to find if you look hard enough.
There’s a lot of crap that we have to go through on a day-to-day basis. Life can be hard, the world can be scary, and all too often we are forced to face frustration and disappointment, but we don’t have to wallow in it. Whether it’s your favorite team sucking it up for two-straight months or your boss not appreciating all of your hard work or your personal life hitting a rough patch, there are ways to acknowledge those realities without letting the anger overwhelm you.
When it was announced that freshman phenom Brice Sensabaugh wouldn’t be playing in the game, a certain subset of “fans” took to Twitter saying he was preserving his draft stock at the expense of his team and that he was soft. That prompted normally mild-mannered Columbus Dispatch beat writer Adam Jardy to provide a bit of a clap back on the folks who feel like it’s best to immediately attack a kid because he’s not playing or acting the way that you think he should.
Hey, Twitter doctors piling on a kid who's sitting out a game with knee soreness. Did you know he missed his entire junior season with a meniscus injury that required two surgeries?https://t.co/IBUbssszLq— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) March 10, 2023
I wrote about this type of thing during the football season, but this idea of fandom and identifying so much of our personalities with a team or group of people that we have no direct involvement with can end up being corrosive; it can bring out the absolute worst in us.
But this run by the basketball Buckeyes has been a welcome reminder that I sometimes need; modern human nature might lend itself to focusing on the negative and steering into the raw, base emotions that drag us into the gutter, but there’s always a silver lining to be found, and when those bright spots present themselves to us, we should not be so bitter or arrogant to ignore them.