COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s now or never for the 2016-17 Ohio State men’s basketball team. If the Buckeyes can’t find some semblance of consistency for the first time all season in the Big Ten Tournament this week, Ohio State will likely find itself on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
“It’s a new season,” Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta said on Monday. “We’ve gotta get ourselves ready to roll.”
Ohio State’s mission begins on Wednesday, when the 11th-seeded Buckeyes take on No. 14 Rutgers in the tournament’s opening round. Until then, here’s everything you need to know about Ohio State’s last shot to make the Big Dance.
All things considered, the Buckeyes’ draw could be tougher for a bottom-4 seed. Ohio State opens on Wednesday with the Big Ten’s worst team in Rutgers and, if victorious, will advance to play sixth-seeded Northwestern.
In their lone battle with the Wildcats this season on Jan. 22, the Buckeyes lost a close contest, 74-72. Northwestern enters the conference tournament having lost three of its past four games and six of its previous nine.
From there, Ohio State’s road would get tougher, as third-seeded Maryland awaits in the quarterfinals Friday. The Buckeyes lost both of their tussles with the Terrapins this season by a combined 15 points.
On the bright side, should Ohio State advance far enough, it wouldn’t face top-seed Purdue until the tournament title game. But as the league’s 11th-seed, the reality is Ohio State was never going to have an easy road to its first conference tournament championship since 2013.
The only way for the Buckeyes to guarantee a big to the NCAA Tournament is for Ohio State to run the table and win the Big Ten Tournament. A deep run could also aid the Buckeyes’ efforts — but anything less than securing the league’s automatic big may not be enough.
At 17-14 on the season and with a 7-11 mark in Big Ten play, Ohio State simply doesn’t possess an NCAA Tournament-caliber résumé. The Buckeyes have beaten just one ranked team all season and haven’t strung together three straight wins since the end of November.
Heading into the conference tournament, the ‘bracketology’ on TeamRankings.com gives Ohio State a 1.4-percent chance to receive an automatic bid, a 1.1-percent chance to receive an at-large bid and a 2.5-percent chance overall of making the NCAA Tournament.
Bovada gives the Buckeyes 33-1 odds to win the Big Ten Tournament. In other words, Ohio State needs a lot of help.
In their lone meeting with Rutgers this season on Feb. 8, the Buckeyes beat the Scarlet Knights 70-64.
The Buckeyes had squandered what was a 12-point second half lead, as the Scarlet Knights stole an inbound pass and converted on a layup to tie the game at 62 with 1:19 left in the game. Ohio State guard Kam Williams then bailed out the Buckeyes on the ensuing possession, converting a 4-point play on a 3-point basket to seal the game.
That proved to be the start of a six-game losing streak for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights, however, enter Wednesday’s contest coming off a 62-59 victory vs. Illinois in their regular-season finale.
Player to watch
If Ohio State is going to have any chance to play to its potential this week, guard JaQuan Lyle is going to have to play to his. After entering the season as one of the Buckeyes’ top returning players, Lyle has endured an inconsistent sophomore season, averaging 11.6 points, 4.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game.
The epitome of Lyle’s up-and-down nature has been on display for the last month. After failing to reach double-digit scoring figures in four out of five games from Jan. 31-Feb. 18, Lyle scored at least 17 points in each the last three games of the regular season.
The good news for the Buckeyes is Lyle enters the conference tournament riding an apparent hot streak — but the only problem is, you never know when it could come to an end.
In fairness to Lyle, an ankle injury hindered him early in February and coincided with a move to the bench in favor of point guard C.J. Jackson.
Perhaps maybe — just maybe — Ohio State’s most talented player is finally back to full strength.
Ohio State basketball roster and stats
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In seven of Matta’s first 10 seasons as Ohio State’s head coach, the Buckeyes advanced to the Big Ten Tournament championship game, winning four times.
Ohio State, however, has yet to return to the league title game since winning it in 2013 and has failed to advance past the quarterfinals in either of the previous two seasons.
If the Buckeyes are going to have any sort of shot of making the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to likely need to advance to Sunday — and even that might not be enough. One of just four Big Ten teams to not receive a first-round bye, Ohio State is fighting an uphill battle.
But hey, they don’t call it March Madness for nothing.