GREENSBORO, N.C. - It could be seen coming. Its likelihood didn't justify the outcome, but it was influential.
Ohio State had been tiptoeing along the border dividing prosperity and failure, leaning more and more toward the latter for the past three weeks.
The Buckeyes' 77-68 overtime loss to Utah State in the first round of the NCAA East Regional Thursday was the culmination of an erosion that started at Northwestern three weeks ago.
The deterioration was concealed by a pair of victories at the start, but then exposed by two losses to end the season, the first against Iowa in OSU's Big Ten Tournament opener.
“I hate to see it end on this kind of note, but this has been kind of building and we lost the edge we had right before we played Northwestern,” OSU coach Jim O'Brien admitted after his fifth-seeded team's early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
It was a season of two variations. The Buckeyes were a disappointing 12-7 overall and 3-4 in the conference after losses at Michigan State and Wisconsin, both by 15 points. O'Brien said OSU's 57-42 setback at Wisconsin was the worst he's experienced in his five years at the school.
But then came the beginning of a dissimilar season when, three days after the Wisconsin embarrassment, the Bucks upset then No. 3-ranked Michigan State.
“That win came at a great time,” O'Brien said. “It was a time when we were maybe at our all-time low point. It just changed our mindset and got everybody back to being a little more confident.”
So confident were the Buckeyes that they then lost at home to Indiana, but followed with seven consecutive conference victories, five of which were on the road.
But the sixth game in that joyride was a struggle, OSU finally pulling out a 69-57 win over last-place Northwestern. It was then on to Penn State to end the regular season. The Nittany Lions led 51-31 at halftime before Ohio State netted 62 points in the second half to pull out a 93-87 triumph.
“We have not really played very well the last three weeks,” O'Brien admitted here. “I don't know if we kind of peaked and hit this wall, but whatever edge we had down the stretch we kind of lost when we had the lull in those last two games. This is a continuance of how we've been playing the last couple of weeks.
“These kids have given us an awful lot all year long. We tried to ride them home to the finish line and we just started to run out of gas these last couple of weeks. They gave us all their energy and everything we asked for months. We just seemed to hit this wall the last few games of the season and we just couldn't overcome it. It's all so abrupt this time of year.
But not to be forgotten is that this Buckeye team overachieved for much of the season, particularly in beating MSU and Illinois, which both gained No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. That Ohio State finished 20-11 and third in the conference was a very large accomplishment in itself.
This was a team that started the season not knowing where its points were going to come from with its top three scorers from last season not returning. This was a team that had no go-to guy in clutch situations and very little experience. It was a team picked to finish anywhere from sixth to ninth in the conference and had a very small margin for error.
After the loss to Iowa in the conference tournament, O'Brien was hard on his team. Following a quick dinner it was lights out. He later admitted he came as close as he ever has to apologizing to his players.
“What I should be doing is patting them all on the rear end and giving them hugs for what they accomplished the last four weeks of the season versus one game in the Big Ten tournament,” he said a day later.
It's still not too late to express that same sentiment, even versus two tournament games.
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