WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When the Big Ten basketball schedule was released last August, I don’t want to say Ohio State-Purdue inspired less excitement than a rerun of a test of the Emergency Alert System.
Andre Wesson and his Ohio State teammates have the inside track to the most improbable championship in program history after Wednesday's win at Purdue.
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I mean, one league writer picked the Buckeyes to finish dead last. In a conference that reportedly includes Rutgers. That is reason enough Wednesday night’s game was long ago consigned to the Big Ten Network, not CBS or Fox or ESPN, the TV partners with the pick of all big, medium, and small contests.
The showdown of the season? Ha.
And yet here we were, gathered for just that.
For Buckeyes basketball fans, a winter of pleasant surprise — like finding a $20 bill in the washer — reached its greatest heights yet.
I’m still not sure what just happened. No, really. Please tell me.
With a rally that will be forever remembered, No. 14 Ohio State proved itself as an honest-to-goodness Big Ten — and national — contender in a stunning 64-63 victory over No. 3 Purdue.
None of it made sense. Ohio State trailed by 14 points ... midway through the second half ... in one of the league’s toughest venues ... to the league’s toughest team. And make no mistake: This is a great Purdue team, with 7-foot-2 man-mountain Isaac Haas, a reserve of snipers, and national title dreams. The Boilermakers had won 19 games in a row, and along with Virginia and Villanova, were among the three teams clearly above the rest of the land.
But then again, nothing about this magical run — an out-of-nowhere storm from a team that returned just six scholarship players from a bad roster — has made any sense.
The Buckeyes kept coming, and in the end, with smoke, mirrors, boundless heart, unexpected contributions, and a late banked 3 by Andre Wesson, there they were. The best player on the court did what game-changing players do. Keita Bates-Diop hit a put-back with 2.8 seconds left, felling the league’s lone unbeaten and sending his disbelieving teammates screaming onto the court.
What did it mean? Oh, nothing. Just that Ohio State (21-5, 12-1 Big Ten), with the tiebreaker over top league rivals Purdue and Michigan State, is now in the driver’s seat for its most improbable league title in program history.
Anyone doubt them?
What Chris Holtmann — a near-shoo-in for national coach of the year — has done with this team is nothing short of extraordinary.
If you had asked me before or early in the game, I would have predicted a rout. Oddsmakers say home-court advantage is worth between two and six points in college basketball, but Mackey Arena is an exception.
Imagine trying to play a game in an airplane bathroom.
That’s what it feels like for the visitors here when the train whistle begins ringing in your head and the arena rattles, the whole 14,804-seat bowl closing in on them. Andre Wesson opened the night with a 30-foot heave three feet wide, which was as close as Ohio State got for a while. The Buckeyes missed their first seven shots.
Yet from there, they turned this into a black-and-blue slugfest. Ohio State had few answers for Haas, who made 6-9, 270-pound freshman freighter Kaleb Wesson resemble a small forward, or guard Carsen Edwards (28 points). But the visitors shut down everyone else, matched Purdue on the boards, and made one big play after another when it mattered.
Maybe we need to start seriously reevaluating this “Cinderella” team.
The Buckeyes have some nice pieces, some very nice. Bates-Diop — the former five-star recruit who in his senior year has become the biggest breakout star since Urkel — is the best player in the Big Ten. Kaleb Wesson, though he looked like a freshman here, is evoking shades of a young Jared Sullinger. And Toledo native Jae’Sean Tate is Jae’Sean Tate, the floor-burning stickum who brings it all together.
But it is the team together that is proving special. “They don’t have guys trying to be Saturday night heroes that come off the bench,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Guys know their roles.”
As for us, we don’t know anything. Ohio State’s visit to Purdue was supposed to uncover it as a very good team well short of great. Maybe that’s still true. But for one night, go ahead and dream a little, Buckeyes fans.
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