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Mike Lopresti | | March 10, 2023

Ohio State's postseason run captures the enigma that is Big Ten basketball this season

Houston, UCLA, Purdue lead final Power 36 rankings

CHICAGO – What in the name of March Madness has gotten into Ohio State?

A No. 13 seed charging into the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament? A floundering team that went 1-14 in an ugly train wreck in January and February, now blowing through three wins in three days — including Friday when the Buckeyes beat Michigan State 68-58 even without their leading scorer?

“We went through a big slump but we keep fighting,” said Bruce Thornton after putting 21 points on the Spartans. “We keep showing people that we belong.”

Bizarre. But then, so is their league.

Come Sunday, there will be Big Ten footprints all over the NCAA tournament. Nine invitees, so the bracketologists predict. As for what that might mean the next three weeks, only the gods of March know. This league is a 14-member conundrum.

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Look at the exploding cigar the Big Ten tournament has quickly become. In the first five games, the higher-seeded team went 0-5. That had never happened before in any of the Power 5 or Big East tournaments. After eight games, teams had lost five times to opponents they had swept during the regular season. And on Friday, the nation’s underdog of the week roared once more.

Ohio State was without leading scorer Brice Sensabaugh and his sore knee and still shoved aside Michigan State to become the first No. 13 seed ever to advance to the semifinals. The Buckeyes have already been without leading rebounder Zed Key for weeks. That’s three wins in three days, all against higher seeds. Two more victories — starting with Purdue Saturday — and Ohio State will have swiped an NCAA tournament bid in broad daylight. The Buckeyes arrived in Chicago when this week began with 13-18 record.

“We see that but right now we’re focused on this next one,” senior Justice Sueing said. “We knew we were capable this entire year. We had our struggles, like every team had, but ours is a little more.”

Playing against Big Ten muscle, surely they must be wearing down by now.

“As soon as I leave here, I’m getting an ice bath right now,” Thornton said. “It’s hard, but at the end of the day, I want to win so badly. I want to just prove people wrong. I want to show what this team is really made of.”

And as coach Chris Holtmann noted, “Confidence trumps fatigued legs. We’ll roll with that anytime.”

They hit 10 of 19 3-pointers against the Spartans Friday. When they lost to Michigan State in February they missed 23 of 29 and shot 28 percent overall.

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In a three-game February low tide, Ohio State trailed Michigan State by 23, Iowa by 28 and Purdue by 31. When the Buckeyes lost to Penn State on Feb. 23, they were 3-14 in the league. Now look where they are.

How does that happen?

“Trust,” Holtmann said.

It took a while partly because of the youth. When Sensabaugh is healthy, Holtmann is starting four freshmen, including Thornton and Roddy Gayle Jr., who combined for 36 points against Michigan State.

“My AD kept saying it. Play them early, play the freshmen early,” Holtmann said. Now he is.

“They’re trusting the pass, they’re trusting each other and they’re living with the results.”

Thornton has seen that, too. “We always said it was the little things, the boxing out, holding teams to one shot, just the extra pass, things like that. They really don’t get shown on the stat sheet, but we make sure we do it, and it’s showing.”

So here's Ohio State, the team that won one game between New Year’s Day and Feb. 26, on the doorstep of the Big Ten title game. “We’ve seen some crazy things happen in our league.” Holtmann was saying, and he didn’t mean just the past three days.

The Big Ten tournament has put into focus what has been going on in this league. Everybody has had bad days, bad weeks, bad karma. Does that suggest a consortium of vulnerable teams — who will fall over like bowling pins starting next week in the NCAA tournament — or just life in a conference where any lapse in execution of effort or attention does not go unpunished? “It’s the best league in the country,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “The challenges are immense everywhere you turn.

"You just stay the course and keep fighting and know that you could beat anybody and know that you could lose to anybody. That’s the kind of league it is.”

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Consider what happened the first two days of this tournament.

Ohio State opened the show by rolling up a 27-point lead on Wisconsin and then holding on to win 75-67.

No. 14 seed Minnesota, who went 2-17 in conference play, handed out 25 assists on 27 field goals and beat Nebraska 78-75.

Rutgers, loser of six of its last eight, defended Michigan into oblivion 62-50. Take away Wolverines’ star Hunter Dickinson and the rest of the Michigan team combined for only 26 points.

Ohio State was back to make more trouble with a 73-69 upset of No. 5 seed Iowa.

No. 10 seed Penn State, which endured a recent 3-8 slide over 11 games, disposed of Illinois 79-76, nevermind how the United Center was filled with mostly Illini orange. “They never bat an eye and they never waver,” coach Micah Shrewsberry said of his Nittany Lions. “There’s no situation we haven’t been through. We’ve been through everything.”

On Friday, Purdue had to huff and puff to get past Rutgers, and late in the game looked dumbstruck by the Scarlet Knights’ press. “Obviously,” coach Matt Painter said afterward, “we had some Keystone Cops moments in the last three minutes.”

Here’s another example of a wacko Big Ten season. Purdue won the conference season title by three games but had only one player — Zach Edey — named to either the all-Big Ten first, second or third teams. Michigan, with a 17-15 record, had three.

The other higher seeds were scheduled for later Friday. Northwestern has lost three of its last four. Indiana has gone a month on win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win treadmill. They fit right in this confusing stew.

But at the moment, Ohio State is the king enigma of them all.

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There were actually signs of this late upward trend in the regular season when the Buckeyes beat Illinois and Maryland and played Michigan State and Penn State close. No more routs. Clearly, something was happening. “I think the greatest job he did was not this tournament, the greatest job he did was saving them for the last five games of the regular season, even when they lost,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said of Holtmann.

As this week has rolled on, Holtmann had tried to explain the revival on the fly.

“I think our team had to learn to play the right way when we go through adversity in games and that’s been a hard lesson for us. It’s taken us a minute (and 18 defeats) to understand that. There’s a way you’ve got to play to give yourself a chance.

“I questioned everything. I questioned if I was too hard on them at times. I questioned if I was not hard enough on them at times, too emotional. When you go through stretches like that you’re not sleeping, you’re not eating, you’re in a bad place. I certainly did question if I was getting through to them.

“I think what we tried to do is celebrate small steps of quality play.”

In Chicago this week, they’ve been taking leaps, not small steps.

“We keep playing together with a free spirit and this aggression on defense, we’re going to keep winning,” Thornton said. “So we’ll keep this up and onto the next.”

Next is Big Ten champion Purdue. The team that beat Ohio State by 27 points in late February, but that was ages ago.

“No one said it was going to be easy trying to make this run,” Sueing said. “I think we’re going to be ready for this.”

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