How They Got Here: Thad Matta's Ohio State Buckeyes captured a No. 2 seed in the East Region following a 27-7 campaign that saw them win a piece of their third straight Big Ten regular season conference title before losing to Michigan State in the conference tournament championship.
Replacing Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale didn't seem like much of an issue early on as the Buckeyes coasted through their first eight games undefeated, featuring a win over Florida and a 22-point blowout of Duke.
Then the roller coaster ride began.
First, Jared Sullinger missed two games, including a loss at Kansas. Even when Sullinger returned it took about six games for him to truly regain form due to a combo of back spasms and a foot issue, though the Buckeyes took advantage of soft competition to win five of those six without the big fella. Following a win over Northwestern to open the Big Ten conference slate, OSU lost in the road to Indiana thanks to poor late game execution and they lost again two games later at Illinois as Brandon Paul went gonzo for 43 points.
Continuing their bipolar ways, OSU won six straight games by an average of 17 points including decisions over Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue but their worst stretch of the season followed with losses in three of the next five including two rare home defeats at the hands of Michigan State and Wisconsin.
With a portion of the fan base wondering if the wheels were set to come off, Matta's crew rallied to win their last two regular season contests, at Northwestern and at Michigan State, to steal a share of the regular season crown. The momentum helped the Buckeyes cruise past Purdue and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament before losing a donnybrook to the Spartans, forcing them to settle for the No. 2 seed.
The Buckeyes are essentially a three-headed monster offensively with Sullinger (17.6 ppg), sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas (15.4 ppg) and senior guard William Buford (14.7 ppg) accounting for 64 percent of the team's scoring. Point guard Aaron Craft is the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year and the final starter, sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., is a fairly pedestrian offensive player on a team that could really use a knockdown jump shooter, though he rebounds very well from the perimeter.
Scarlet-Colored Glasses Outlook: The ultimate scenario for Ohio State has Buford showing up consistently. That means shooting a respectable percentage when the opponents get tougher which is something he hasn't been able to do going back to his 2 out of 16 rim assault in the 62-60 Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky last March. Sullinger may get all the national attention but this team will only go as far as Buford can take it. The proof? In Ohio State's seven losses this season, Buford shot a dismal 32 percent from the field (31/95). In the team's 27 victories, he hit a much more respectable 46 percent -- not bad for a perimeter player on a team with guards that offer very little in the way of scoring punch from outside. If Buford does put it all together, his NBA skill set is good enough to help propel the Buckeyes to New Orleans.
While Buford remains the biggest factor in a deep run, the Buckeyes could also help themselves by avoiding foul trouble. Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft must play 33-plus minutes a night for this team to reach the Final Four. Over the years, Thad Matta has relied heavily on his starters and that has been very easy to do this year thanks to a bench adds virtually zero offensive punch. Using reserves for the sole purpose of giving Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft a blow -- instead of leaning on them to produce in the wake of foul trouble -- would be a major boost to Ohio State's chances.
Finally, the Buckeyes stand to make a deep run if Sullinger can keep his emotions in check and avoid employing the frustrated-bulldozer move he turns to when he feels the zebras aren't giving him the proper respect. This typically leads to empty possessions and increased frustration as the officials fail to bail him out with foul calls when he throws up off-balance prayers. When Sullinger's head is right, his steady offensive game and work on the boards make him a dominant college player.
If these three things come together, there's no reason this team can't earn a spot in the Final Four -- and once you get there, anything can happen.
Real Talk: Now that we've got the blue sky scenarios out of the way, let's take an honest look at what will be the most likely fatal flaws that end Ohio State's season as early as the Sweet 16 but more likely the Elite Eight.
Beyond what was touched on above, the Buckeyes have struggled mightily to execute their offense down the stretch in big game defeats. In Sunday's loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final, OSU actually led by seven with 14:06 to play and trailed by only two with 3:33 remaining, but the team missed eight of their last nine field goal attempts including three in a row that could've tied the game or given them the lead.
In the Senior Day (Buford is the lone seasoned vet) loss to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes led by six with six minutes to play but lost by three thanks to 1/4 field goal shooting and 1/4 from the stripe over the final two minutes. Similarly, in the road loss to Michigan in mid-February, Ohio State trailed by just two with two minutes to play and finished the game shooting 0/3 with one turnover to fall by five, 56-51.
The late choke jobs have often been the result of either Sullinger forcing the action against double-teams or Thomas and Buford showcasing their sometimes hair-triggers via one-on-one moves that stifle both ball and player movement. These instances have been enhanced by the fact Ohio State sorely misses Jon Diebler's ability to stretch the defense with the threat of a three pointer and Craft simply hasn't emerged (yet) as a consistent scoring threat.
Bottom line, it's hard not to think that a bad shooting night from Buford, a frustrated effort from Sullinger, the lack of a deep threat or being overwhelmed by a more athletic team will ultimately derail Ohio State's chances of bringing home Ohio State's first national title since 1960.
Chris Lauderback is a co-founder and Sr. Editor of the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors. You can follow him on twitter: @Chris11w.