Ohio State won its second Big Ten tournament title last season before its run to the national championship game. This season, the Buckeyes are just hoping they can get into the NCAA tournament.
A victory over Michigan State last weekend helped Ohio State’s cause, but didn’t guarantee anything, and the Buckeyes may have to win a second matchup with the 19th-ranked Spartans in six days when they meet Friday in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.
The Buckeyes beat Wisconsin in the championship of last year’s Big Ten tourney, as a team led by freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. went 35-4 and lost to Florida in the NCAA title game.
Oden and Conley were among four Buckeyes starters that departed, and Ohio State (19-12) is starting two freshmen and a sophomore this season. The Buckeyes’ hopes for a return trip to the NCAAs didn’t seem good after a four-game losing streak from Feb. 17-March 1.
Ohio State entered play last week with an eight-game skid against ranked foes, but resurrected its NCAA chances with two huge home wins. The Buckeyes held off then-No. 15 Purdue 80-77 in overtime March 4 before a 63-54 win over the Spartans on Sunday.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t believe there’s any question that Ohio State should make the field of 65.
“Do I think Ohio State is deserving of being in the tournament? Hands down,” he said after Sunday’s loss. “The problem is our league gets so maligned by people - and for what reason I don’t know. But, yeah, I think Ohio State deserves to be in. They beat two ranked teams down the stretch and they played one of the tougher schedules early.”
The Buckeyes are 5-9 in road and neutral-site games, but know that another victory over the Spartans (24-7), this one at Conseco Fieldhouse, could cement their NCAA status.
“They have to understand the urgency of what’s at stake, from the standpoint of you win, you advance, you lose, you go home,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of his players. “They’ve got to understand that in a lot of regards this is postseason play.”
Michigan State hopes to bounce back after blowing an eight-point halftime lead Sunday. The Spartans were shaky down the stretch, getting outscored 15-2 to close the game and finishing with a season-high 21 turnovers to only nine for Ohio State.
“The turnovers definitely were a shame,” Izzo said. “But it’s correctable and I’m looking forward to playing them again.”
Despite being picked to win the conference in the preseason, Michigan State finished a disappointing fourth. Part of the problem has been the erratic play of senior guard Drew Neitzel.
Neitzel is averaging 13.4 points, down from his 18.1 from last season. He shot just 37.7 percent in Big Ten play, including a 2-of-9 effort for six points in Sunday’s loss.
“I don’t think he’s coming off picks as hard as he did last year and he’s passing up some shots,” Izzo said. “When that happens, you’re not as confident as you should be.”
Neitzel gets his last chance to overcome his dismal history in the Big Ten tourney. He’s averaging 7.5 points on 28.9 shooting in six such games, and 20 of his 45 career points in the conference tournament came in a first-round win over lowly Northwestern last season.
The Spartans haven’t won the Big Ten tournament since 2000.