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Ohio State heads to Chicago with confidence after improved play over last three games

Buckeyes head into Big Ten Tournament feeling dangerous after finally picking up a few wins down the stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need to remind Chris Holtmann or his players that this season has been a disaster — they’re well aware.

This is not how Justice Sueing, Isaac Likekele, or Sean McNeil saw their final season of college basketball going when they chose to transfer to (or return to) Ohio State last summer. Even though he’s just a freshman, Bruce Thornton has said on more than one occasion that he “never wants to feel this way again,” and vowed that he’d make sure his team works hard this summer to make sure a season like this does not occur again while he is a Buckeye.

Despite the disappointing record, the Buckeyes (13-18, 5-15) feel they’re playing they’re playing their best basketball right now as all 14 Big Ten teams descend upon Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament.

After going through a seven-week stretch where they lost 14 of 15 games, Ohio State finished the season winning two of three by beating tournament-bound Illinois and Maryland before falling to Michigan State this past weekend in East Lansing.

The Buckeyes led Illinois for 36:28 of the 40 minutes on Feb. 26, shooting 53.6% on the day and knocking down their final seven shots to dispose of the Illini. They followed that by leading for 37:55 of the 40 minutes on March 1 against Maryland, shooting 48% from the floor but also going a perfect 20-20 from the free throw line — a program record.

Even their loss against the Spartans last weekend had some positives to take away, as the Buckeyes clawed back from a 13-point deficit in the early going to cut it to a one-possession game in the closing minutes. Ohio State shot 48.3% overall, 44% from beyond the arc, and got 20 or more points from both Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton.

Had they not stumbled early and allowed Michigan State to mount a massive 15-0 run, the Buckeyes may have won that game, too.

After the game, Sensabaugh — whose Ohio State and collegiate career will likely end in Chicago this week — described the Buckeyes as a “late bloomer” of a team that is figuring things out at the most critical juncture of the season.

“As a new team, I think we’re figuring it out now,” Sensabaugh said after the loss to Michigan State. “We’re kind of a late blooming team, but I think you know, it’s a little late, but I’d say we got it figured out at the right time. We took it upon ourselves to figure it out at all, you know? We had to figure it out soon, so you know, just keep working, keep going hard in practice and trust the process.”

Senior captain Justice Sueing flirted with a triple-double in the loss to MSU, finishing with 10 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. He said the Buckeyes have “a certain walk” to them right now, and for the first time all year, they take the court expecting to win every game.

“I’m confident in our position right now, especially the way we’re playing together,” Sueing told us after the game. “Our mentality, our process for getting ready for games, we’re stepping on the floor expecting to win. It’s a thing we have with our walk, just how we expect to play, we expect to play Buckeye basketball. We’re going in there and we’re ready to get to it.”

Now, history says that the Buckeyes have zero shot to win this tournament, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees. Ohio State has played their best basketball of the season over the last three games, but it’s the previous 15 that put them in this precarious position as the 13-seed. Since the conference expanded to 14 teams in 2014, there has never been a team who played on Wednesday of the Big Ten Tournament and made it to Saturday (the semi-final round).

To put it in other terms: no team seeded lower than 10 has ever won three games in this tournament. It’s not a rarity, like a 16-seed knocking off a 1-seed in the big dance — it has never happened. A miracle run this week doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for the Buckeyes based on their overall body of work, but Chris Holtmann did note over the weekend that he’s coached a team recently that nearly did it by winning four games in four days.

Talking on his weekly radio show, Holtmann referenced the 2020-2021 team that went on a run to the Big Ten Championship game after starting that tournament as the five-seed: “A couple years ago we played four games in four days, when we played Illinois in the Big Ten Championship game. It was exhausting, and the reality was it did affect us afterwards. But in a setting like this, we’re really just preparing to go 1-0 and then deal with whatever comes next.”

He emphasized the urgency there will be for this year’s Big Ten Tournament, as it’s the only chance the Buckeyes have to make the NCAA Tournament with their less than sterling record. If they somehow win the Big Ten Tournament and make the big dance, it will take an unprecedented five-day run that would rewrite record books.

Based on some quick research, the lowest seed to ever win the Big Ten Tournament was back in 2017 when Michigan (the eight-seed) won the Big Ten Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament bid and then went on to the Sweet 16.

During the 2020-2021 season, Georgetown finished 9-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big East, securing the eight-seed in the conference tournament. They went on to win four straight games to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, becoming the lowest seed ever to win the Big East.

But a 13-seed? There isn’t a single instance of a double-digit seed winning their conference tournament. Don’t tell the Buckeyes that, though. Because coming off of three consecutive games where they shot above 48% and either won or tied the rebounding battle, they’re feeling a little dangerous and very confident.