Buckeyes hope to end year strong
COLUMBUS (AP) — Thad Matta understands why his Ohio State team is balancing unsteadily on the NCAA tournament bubble.
That doesn’t mean he likes it. It’s just that he’s not surprised.
“In July when the Big Ten schedule came out, I said, ‘My God, coming out of Ann Arbor, if our heads are above water and we’ve got a decent mojo about us, we’ve got a shot.”’
Yes, the Buckeyes have a shot. But not if they play like they have in losing their last two games and three of four.
Most of their troubles have come during a road trip more suited for a traveling salesman trying to accumulate frequent-flyer miles.
They’ve played eight of their last 12 games away from home, including just one home game in a 28-day span that has included most of February.
“Obviously it feels different being on the road than it does being at home. But that in no way justifies the way that we came out to play some of these road games,” said forward Sam Thompson. “No matter where or who we’re playing, our goal is to come out and play our best and play as hard and well as we can. We didn’t do that sometimes.”
But now the Buckeyes (19-8, 8-6 Big Ten) close out the regular season with three of their last four games at Value City Arena, including Thursday night’s encounter with dysfunctional Nebraska (13-14, 5-10).
Unlike Ohio State, it can be said that the Cornhuskers have a problem at home — particularly since coach Tim Miles has shut them out of their own locker room after playing poorly while losing their last five games.
The Buckeyes have faced a lot of criticism during their recent swoon, capped by an ugly first-half performance in which they trailed by 17 points before falling 64-57 on Sunday at archrival Michigan. The same Wolverines who had lost five in a row thoroughly outplayed and hustled Ohio State in the early going.
The Buckeyes have has gotten by all year without a dominating presence in the middle, with Matta going to a smaller lineup that helped the team win five out of six in January.
But they remain erratic on both offense and defense, looking like world-beaters one minute and the dregs of the conference the next.
Then there is the lack of a consistent No. 2 scorer behind sensational freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell. The Buckeyes’ most recent troubles have coincided with forward Marc Loving’s three-game suspension for undisclosed disciplinary reasons.
Loving’s been back now for two games — both of them losses — during which he has totaled just four points.
“We just need him to be Marc,” Thompson said. “Marc can knock down shots, can put it on the floor, rebound the ball and make stuff happen for himself and his teammates. We need him to get that level of aggression back and that level of productivity back and we’ll be that much better of a team.”
After Nebraska, the Buckeyes host Purdue on Sunday. They then play at Penn State on March 4 before hosting Big Ten-leading Wisconsin on March 8.
Win at least three of those four and they’ll go into the Big Ten tournament with 22 wins and a stronger NCAA resume.
But many more lapses like the one at Michigan and the only way the Buckeyes will get into the NCAA tournament is if they buy tickets.
Matta said he is counseling his young team that a strong finish will more than make up for the recent troubles.
“That’s the biggest thing that I’m at right now,” he said. “(Saying to them) ‘Hey, guys, look, we’re OK. We know what we have to do, we know how we have to do it. Now let’s walk out on the court and get the job done.”
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