Big Ten outcome up in air; Buckeye performance critical

By Jeremy Werner

After a season of volatility at the top of the Big Ten standings, Wisconsin won 10 of its last 11 games to win the regular-season conference title. Yet, the Badgers will face stiff competition from the rest of the Big Ten Tournament field in Indianapolis this weekend.

Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State, all of which are ranked in the top 25, weren’t able to beat out the Badgers during the season but are obvious threats to Wisconsin during the tournament. But the four teams will have to sneak by conference sleeper Ohio State for their chance to be Big Ten Tournament champions.

Many of the Big Ten’s top seeds received a wake-up call late in the season. Purdue rode an 11-game winning to the top of the conference but dropped two of its last five to fall behind the Badgers. Like their in-state rivals, Indiana struggled to finish the season, losing two of its last three including a season-finale loss to Penn State. Michigan State appeared to be heating up at the end of the Big Ten season after an impressive 103-74 victory against the Hoosiers, but the Spartans dropped their final game to Ohio State. The Spartans drew a four seed and a rematch against the Buckeyes in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

The Spartans’ prospects would have looked much better had they beat Ohio State, as Tom Izzo’s club is facing a desperate and consequently dangerous team in Ohio State. The Buckeyes seemed to play itself out of NCAA Tournament consideration following a four-game losing streak late in the season. But Thad Matta was able to lead his team to two key victories against Purdue and Michigan State to finish the season, improving Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

A year after making the NCAA championship game with freshmen standouts Greg Oden and Mike Conley, the Buckeyes are currently floating on the bubble. Needing multiple wins to be considered for the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State’s performance in this weekend’s conference tournament is more significant than any other Big Ten team. If they lose to Michigan State or a possible second-round opponent, the NCAA Tournament committee will find it hard to include Ohio State in its field of 65.

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    Ohio State will rely on senior guard Jamar Butler and freshman center Kosta Koufos, two of the top six scorers in the conference, to carry the team this weekend. Butler scored a combined 45 points in the Buckeyes’ final two games, vaulting the team back into contention. Koufos was highly recruited out of high school and has quickly proved why; he’s averaged 13.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a freshman.

    The two Buckeye stars don’t go it alone, however. Senior forward Othello Hunter and young guards David Lighty and Evan Turner combine for an additional 26.4 points and 14.1 rebounds per game. Ohio State’s depth could be monumental to the team’s success this weekend.

    Ohio State struggled against the nation’s elite this season. The Buckeyes lost early-season non-conference games to Texas A&M;, North Carolina, Butler and Tennessee. Despite having little trouble versus the bottom half of the conference, the Buckeyes struggled to defeat the Big Ten’s best, losing its first five meetings against Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin. But their late-season resurgence may be the sign of a determined team.

    Ohio State lost to the Michigan State by six early in the season, but its victory against the Spartans last week showed the teams are evenly matched. If the Buckeyes can get by the first round, they would likely face Big Ten champion Wisconsin. Although they are the hottest team in the conference, the Badgers narrowly defeated the Buckeyes 58-53, showing Ohio State can keep up even with the conference’s best.

    We will see if the Buckeyes’ surge in their final two games are the signs of a driven, desperate team or if they simply snuck by teams caught looking ahead to the postseason.

    Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].