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Despite 80-66 Big Ten Tournament loss to Purdue, Ohio State’s season shouldn’t be over

The Buckeyes showed incredible heart the last few weeks, essentially guaranteeing that Chris Holtmann will return.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Semifinals—Purdue vs Ohio State David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State men’s basketball team’s magical Big Ten Tournament run has come to an end falling to the top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers in Saturday’s first semifinal 80-66.

Despite one of the hottest starts from deep in recent memory for the Buckeyes, the presumed national player of the year Zach Edey was effectively unstoppable as he put Purdue on his back and dominated the paint to end Ohio State’s Cinderella run. The 7-foot-4 behemoth finished the game with 32 points on 12-of-25 shooting and had 14 rebounds.

Even though they trailed by as many as 15 points in the middle of the second half, OSU refused to give up, exemplifying the character that they have shown down the stretch of the season. Chris Holtmann’s crew cut the lead back down to two possessions with just over five minutes remaining, but they could never get closer than that.

The fight that this team showed in its semifinal matchup — not the mention the last two weeks when lesser squads would have folded up the tents and looked to the transfer portal — speaks to their collective character, commitment, and competitive spirit. The season is ultimately going to be a disappointment, but this collection of Buckeyes has proven that they are much more than their painful losing streak.

OSU freshman Roddy Gayle put on a show early in the contest showing an incredibly hot hand from beyond the arc. He finished with a career-high 20 points thanks to connecting on five of his first six three-point attempts. He finished the day 7-for-9 from the floor and 5-of-6 from distance.

Ohio State senior Justice Sueing contributed 15 points in what could be the final game of his collegiate career. Bruce Thornton, who was held scoreless in the first half, figured some things out after intermission and finished with nine points.

It was announced a few hours before the game that after missing the win over Michigan State with knee soreness, all-everything freshman Brice Sensabaugh would not only miss the semifinal game against Purdue, but would be shut down for the season if the team continued on from there. He joins starting center Zed Key on the bench, following the latter’s shoulder surgery earlier this week.

Obviously missing two of your three leading scorers on the season is never ideal, especially when the team is playing its fourth game in as many days, but that is the lot that the Buckeyes brought into the semifinals, and it didn’t seem to bother early on.

At the first-half under-12 timeout, the Buckeyes had rode the hot hand of Roddy Gayle to take its first lead of the game 21-19. The freshman had hit his first three attempts from distance to lead all scorers and to essentially counteract the fact that B1G Player of the Year Zach Edey was having his way with Felix Okpara and Eugene Brown III down low.

The OSU defense started to pick it up around the middle of the first half forcing Purdue into multiple empty possessions in a row, exacerbated by the fact that Edey remained on the bench following the timeout.

This allowed Holtmann’s squad to extend its lead to seven points — 26 to 19 — thanks to a thunderous dunk by Brown and a fourth bucket from distance for Gayle.

From there, the game went from being a boxing match in which the two teams traded punches to being one in which the Buckeyes were absorbing all of the body blows. OSU turned it over five times in 4:27 of action and the top-seeded Boilermakers cut the Buckeye lead to 31-29 when Brown was called for a hook-and-hold flagrant foul.

He got tangled up with Edey and during the under-four media timeout, the officials reviewed the play and awarded two free throws and the ball to Purdue. Edey connected on both attempts and the 7-foot-4 monster connected on a hook to round out a six-point possession and a 12-2 run to give the Boilers a 33-31 lead.

But it was short-lived as on the very next possession, Gayle connected on his fourth three-pointer to give him a career-high 16 points with more than three minutes left in the first half. Despite the triple, the OSU offensive struggles continued in the final few minutes of the opening period. Ohio State went into the locker room trailing 42-34 following a 21-5 run by the Boilers to close out the first 20 minutes.

Edey led all scorers with 17, and Gayle was the top scorer for OSU with 16. No one else on either team had more than six points, but the Buckeyes did have four other players show up in the scoring column.

Purdue’s center is such a mass of humanity that he could more or less do whatever he wanted when in the lane. Despite that fact, his head coach Matt Painter was lobbying the refs throughout that he was being fouled on nearly every possession, but his size was masking the impact of the contact. Of course, that goes the other way as Edey was not called for his first foul until 5:43 left in regulation.

On the other bench, Holtmann was heard yelling for three-second violations throughout the game as the literal giant had effectively set up camp in the painted area.

Purdue’s dominance only extended coming out of the break. Edey had a pair of buckets, highlighted by an uncontested dunk to put the top-seeded Boilers up 55-40 with 13 minutes remaining in regulation.

Bruce Thornton, who had been the catalyst of much of Ohio State’s offense thus far in the tournament, finally got in the scoring column with 11:52 left as he hit a corner three to cut Purdue’s lead to 55-43. Because of the massive — physical and figurative — presence of Edey in the middle, Thornton’s typical game plan of making his money in the lane was essentially closed for business, effectively eliminating one of the Buckeyes’ most potent playmakers.

Despite the Boilers building a 15-point lead with 12:54 remaining in regulation, the Buckeyes refused to go gently into that good night. With Edey getting a blow on the bench, Sueing went on a five-point run of his own to cut Purdue’s advantage to 57-48 at the under-8 media timeout.

With just under six minutes remaining, Thornton was fouled on a three-point attempt with OSU down 61-50. The freshman connected on his first two attempts and after his third went wanting, Gayle collected the rebound and Thornton got it back to hit a floater to complete a four-point possession. Following a foul by Edey on an offensive rebound attempt, Felix Okpara hit a pair of free throws to make the game interesting again at 61-55.

Purdue got the lead back up to 10 points with just under four minutes remaining and Edey and company closed things out from there.

Is Ohio State men’s basketball season over following Big Ten Tournament?

It used to be that in order to maintain some semblance of quality in the field, the NIT Tournament required that teams had to be at least .500 to gain entry, however, that rule changed in 2017. Under the old guidelines, coming into Saturday, there would have been no way for the Buckeyes to make the field, because at 16-18 overall, they would have needed to win their two games in the Big Ten Tournament to get to an even 18-18, but in doing so, they would have earned the conference’s automatic qualifying berth for the NCAA Tournament.

However, that didn’t stop athletic director Gene Smith from lobbying the NIT on his team’s behalf following Friday’s victory over Michigan State. Smith made it very clear on Friday that he believes Holtmann’s squad deserves to continue its season. The OSU AD told The Columbus Dispatch’s Adam Jardy, “The NIT committee should consider us. We’re not a team to host, but we’re a team that should be in the NIT.”

And you know what, he’s right. Losing 15 of 16 games in the middle of a season is not a recipe for postseason worthiness, but the Buckeyes have proven that they are more than just that horrid seven-week run. With wins in the last two weeks over tournament teams Illinois, Maryland, Iowa, and Michigan State and bubble team Wisconsin, coupled with a game effort against Purdue today, it is clear that Holtmann has found something having been forced to go younger and smaller late in the season following Key’s injury, and then relying more and more on Gayle due to Sensabaugh’s absence.

It would be a shame if this team didn’t have the opportunity to continue this run because they wrapped up the conference tournament three games below .500.

Will Ohio State Fire Chris Holtmann Following the Season?

Whether the loss to Purdue was the final game of this team’s season or not, I now think that it’s pretty clear that it will not be Holtmann’s final game as Ohio State’s head coach. For a myriad of reasons (recruiting, recent contract extension, other available candidates), I already thought that it would be tough to fire him. But, a little more than five weeks ago, I wrote that I thought he was coaching for his future and that he needed to avoid a disastrous February run to keep his job in Columbus.

Obviously, the majority of last month was a disaster, but I think the last two weeks have mitigated the losing streak’s impact to a certain degree. The fact that he was able to keep his team engaged, focused, and fighting says a lot about his players and their trust in him, as well as his leadership both on and off the floor.

Now, should Holtmann return for the 2023-24 season, I think that he will need to show significant progress with whatever core returns from this team and the highly-rated recruiting class to continue from there. Gone is the opportunity to turn in moderately successful Big Ten campaigns and cap them with early exits from the Big Dance. I’m not saying that the Buckeyes have to win the conference or make the Final Four next season (although that would be nice), but significant progress must be made in order to prove that Holtmann is the right man for the job moving forward.

Whether he is or isn’t, I don’t know. I think that he is a quality human being and a really good basketball coach. The way that his team has responded in the last two weeks shows me that he is not a guy that either quits on his team or that a team will easily quit on, and that’s a big deal coming off of an often horrific season like this one.

I have really enjoyed watching this team this season, especially since the Penn State game on Feb. 23, despite it being a loss. I hope that we as Buckeye fans get the opportunity to watch them play at least one more time this season, and — even though two months of this campaign were utterly soul-crushing — I am already looking forward to what this crew can do next season.