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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2008

It's crunch time for OSU's NCAA tournament hopes

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - Sitting on a thin-skinned pocket of air, and hoping it does not burst and dump you hard on the deck - this is not a familiar position for the Ohio State basketball team.

But losses in their last three games have perched the Buckeyes right on top of that precarious NCAA tournament bubble.

Some say they're in, some claim they're out, but Ohio State's showing in the remaining three games of the season (at Minnesota today and home to Purdue and Michigan State), and in the Big Ten tournament that follows, likely will make its case, or seal its fate.

"We've got a few games left here, and we're going to leave it all on the court," Ohio State senior Matt Terwilliger said. "We need to just keep doing what we do and not lose faith. The biggest thing is just keeping our intensity and playing hard."

Terwilliger was part of the formula last year, when the Buckeyes won an NCAA regional title, then advanced to the Final Four and the national championship game, where they lost to Florida. Big Ten regular season and tournament titles made the NCAA trip a lock.

The year before, a Big Ten crown and a runner-up finish in the conference tournament did the same.

Not so this season, when that 26-3 Ohio State team from a year ago had to be extensively restructured after three players left early to become first-round NBA draft picks, and two valuable seniors departed. Now, the still-developing Buckeyes, who have lost four of their last five games, face something resembling a gantlet of must-win situations.

"You're at that stage where there's got to be a play made," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said on the heels of Tuesday night's loss at Indiana, which dropped the Buckeyes to 8-6 in the Big Ten.

Matta had the current crisis further complicated last Saturday when he held his most experienced and most reliable player, senior point guard Jamar Butler, out of the starting lineup for the first time in 96 games for undisclosed reasons. Matta said things have to turn around for the young Buckeyes.

"I've said this all along, they are great guys, and that's why I feel so bad," Matta said. "I mean, these guys are tremendous young men, and at some point, we've got to catch a break somewhere, or something's got to go right for us."

Offensive production has been an area of vulnerability all season long for Ohio State, whose 57.4 points per game average is almost 20 points lower than Big Ten leader Indiana (76.4). Ohio State has also suffered through woeful shooting from 3-point range, hitting just 33 percent (192 of 582), near the bottom of the conference in accuracy.

"That's kind of been the biggest challenge for us all season long, to put the ball in the basket," Matta said. "I just want these guys to play well and play better, and I think we're making strides."

The Buckeyes fell behind early at Indiana, spent the remainder of the game fighting to get even, and then had to foul as time became the enemy. It is a scenario Matta has seen too often.

"We've got to get that corrected," he said. "We dug ourselves a hole. We don't want to be a team where something great has to happen for us to play well, and hopefully we keep learning lessons here."

Ohio State freshman Kosta Koufos, who came alive in the second half at Indiana and finished with 21 points and six rebounds, said the Buckeyes need to be resilient down the stretch.

"No matter how many times we fall down, we just have to get back up and keep going to where we want to be," he said. "There will be nights where shots don't fall, but we can't let that affect us."

Matta has spoken to his team about the sand slipping through the hourglass on their season, and what it will take to assure themselves a place in the NCAA tournament field. He said momentum is critical.

"I think it's imperative in college basketball this year to get on that roll," Matta said. "And whoever gets on it the best is probably going to win the national championship."



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