COLUMBUS, Ohio — Upon examining his team’s 2016-17 schedule, it didn’t take Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta long to spot the stretch that would define his team’s season.
Five games in 15 days — four against teams expected to contend for the Big Ten title, three them on the road.
The Buckeyes wouldn’t have to wait long to see what they were made of, either. Ohio State’s season-defining stretch would coincide with the start of conference play.
“When the schedule came out, I looked at it and said, ‘Uh-oh,'” recalled Matta. “That’s why you take it one game at a time.”
And yet two games into the stretch, there sat senior forward Marc Loving on Thursday night, fighting back tears as teammate Jae’Sean Tate tried to explain the Buckeyes’ 76-75 loss to No. 20 Purdue. Two games down, two losses — and a trip to Minneapolis to take on 14-2 Minnesota less than 72 hours away.
“It’s just when you feel like you worked as hard as you possibly can and left it out the floor, guys are going to be emotional,” Loving said. “It’s just the love of the game. You want to win.”
The emotion emanating from Ohio State’s players on Thursday night was understandable. The Buckeyes (10-5, 0-2 Big Ten) were a mere point away from picking up their first win over a ranked opponent this season, a game in which a controversial no-call on a would-be shot clock violation played a major part in the outcome.
After trailing for much of its battle with the Boilermakers, Ohio State tied the game with 15 seconds remaining. But a Caleb Swanigan free throw with 5 seconds left proved to be the difference-maker.
With that, the Buckeyes’ first losing streak of the season officially began. But Ohio State’s frustration on Thursday had every bit as much to do with what’s ahead as with what had just happened.
After the go-round with the Golden Gophers on Sunday, the Buckeyes will head to Madison on Thursday for a showdown with a No. 13 Wisconsin team that currently lays claim to a 13-2 record on the season and a perfect 9-0 at home. Three days later, Ohio State will host Michigan State, which has won seven of its last nine games and possesses some of the top talent in the Big Ten.
Factor in last the conference-opening 75-70 loss to Illinois last Sunday in their conference opener and an 0-5 start to conference play doesn’t just seem possible for the Buckeyes. At this point, it might be likely.
“I wouldn’t say concern, because we work our butts off,” Tate said of the Buckeyes’ current predicament. “We’re here every day. We just gotta keep grinding. We just gotta keep working and just keep trusting Coach. For all the years that I’ve been here, I really feel like this team really wants it. We’ve just gotta find a way to bring that emotion every night.”
That’s well and fine and to Tate’s credit, this Buckeyes team does seem more mature than its predecessors. But at the end of the day, you are what your record says you are. And right now, Ohio State is 10-5 on the season, with quality wins few and far between and the bulk of its schedule in one of the country’s toughest conferences still ahead.
On top of that, the Buckeyes now know they’ll be without one of their best players for the remainder of the season. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop will have season-ending surgery next week to repair a stress fracture in his leg.
On Thursday, Matta compared the impact of the injury to when David Lighty broke his foot in the middle of Ohio State’s 2007-08 campaign. That season marked the first time in the Matta era the Buckeyes’ failed to make the NCAA Tournament when eligible.
The second time came a season ago. At this rate, this year’s team is in danger of becoming the third.
That’s not to say the Buckeyes season is over — far from it. While Ohio State has a tough road ahead, that only means more opportunities for the Buckeyes to improve their NCAA Tournament case. Get to 20 wins with a couple of quality victories and Ohio State could find itself dancing in March once again.
But at this point, it’s hard to give these Buckeyes the benefit of the doubt. For better or worse, Ohio State is in the midst of a stretch that will define its season.
And two games in, it’s not tough to see which way it’s trending.