CHICAGO — It is the place that so many teams yearn to escape in these last urgent hours before Selection Sunday. So let’s take a peek into the nervous world of life on the bubble.
Thursday afternoon at the Big Ten, and it doesn't get much more bubbly than this.
Ohio State is 18-13 and teetering. The Buckeyes started the season 12-1 and won at Cincinnati and Creighton, notoriously inhospitable places for the visitor. What wasn’t to like? But then there were six defeats in eight games, and leading scorer Kaleb Wesson had been suspended three games for an unspecified violation, and Ohio State had lost all three, and things suddenly seemed very wobbly. Plus, here was Indiana, winner of four in a row, with its own bubble-exit strategy.
So the Hoosiers appear to be rising, and the Buckeyes descending, and the United Center is where their flight paths cross Thursday, with the loser probably free to make NIT plans.
“A lot of people thought we were going to lose,” Keyshawn Woods would say later in the Ohio State locker room, as the hero of the day. “I took that kind of personal.”
The Buckeyes understand what's at stake, even if they've tried to shut out the noise. Focus on the opponent, the game plan, the moment. Plus, Wesson is back.
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“But it’s hard to keep it out of your mind," guard Luther Muhammad said later. “You always know. But that motivates you to play harder.”
The coach, Chris Holtmann, understands his players always know.
“They start bubble talk, I think, in November. So that conversation has been going on for a while. And I think it requires some discipline, and I’m not sure that we’ve always been great at it. But as much as possible, we’ve just tried to focus in on trying to play more possessions and quality basketball than what we did the previous time.
“Is it hard? Sure. I mean, it’s everywhere this time of year, right? I think our guys did a pretty good job this last week and a half.”
The fight to survive can sometimes not be pretty. By halftime, Indiana is shooting 30 percent, with one more turnover than field goal, but Ohio State has been no highlight itself and has had to claw for a 35-28 lead.
“Stay aggressive, pressure the ball, basically be the more ready team,” Muhammad said later of the basic plan. Guard Musa Jallow mentioned one driving thought: “This could have been our last game.”
Ohio State’s lead swells in the second half, to 10, to 15, to 20, with 7:30 left. Bubble? What bubble?
Hold it. The gap begins melting. Back to 15, to 10, to . . . three points with 55 seconds still left. If Indiana pulls this one out, it will go in the Bubble Hall of Fame.
What's a desperate team to do, as it skids on the bubble like an icy highway?
“In those situations, where it feels like the whole world’s caving in, just make one play,” Holtmann said afterward.
The play comes from Woods, a difficult basket in traffic. It stops the leaking, secures a 79-75 win, and is part of his terrific game that includes 18 points, 9-for-13 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists. It's only the third time all season he has led the Buckeyes in scoring. His fellow senior at guard, C.J. Jackson, has added 17 points, five assists, five rebounds.
The power of seniors not wanting it to end. That’s what can get a team through on Bubble Day.
“It’s everything, especially for our team,” Holtmann says later outside his locker room. “Not having Kaleb, we’ve wanted to see that look in (the seniors') eyes. I thought they had it, particularly the last 15 minutes. A look you get, that `I want to keep playing awhile.’”
It has been an anxious day. Wonder if the players felt all that was at stake, as that 20-point lead evaporated?
“After,” says Wesson, who returned with a 17-13 double-double. “But during the game, you’re really locked into that possession.”
So this moment of truth ends with Indiana’s tournament bid chances probably gone — never mind the wins over Michigan State (twice), Louisville and Marquette.
And it ends with Ohio State nearer to fleeing the bubble, no matter what happens Friday against Michigan State. Maybe even the other coach thinks so. “I hope they get rewarded for that,” Indiana’s Archie Miller says.
“Certainly I feel like our body of work speaks for itself,” Holtmann offers. “Obviously Kaleb makes a difference. We saw that, I think as much defensively as offensively.”
In the Ohio State locker room, the prospects for a happy Sunday seem much brighter than three hours before. But life on the bubble means nothing is certain.
“Hope we’re in,” Woods says. “We win tomorrow, we’re definitely in.”