After a disappointing regular season, Ohio State is doing its best to erase the memory of a 5-15 conference record by trying to win five games in five days.
The No. 13 seed Buckeyes (16-18) entered the Big Ten tournament in Chicago knowing the only way they could make the NCAA Tournament was by winning it to earn the automatic bid.
To the surprise of most everyone, they are three-fifths of the way there, but a huge obstacle stands in their way of making history when they play top-seeded Purdue (27-5) in a semifinal Saturday.
“We really have nothing to lose so we’ve got free basketball,” Ohio State guard Roddy Gayle Jr. said.
Ohio State is the lowest seed to reach the semifinals in the history of the tournament.
After defeating 12th-seed Wisconsin on Wednesday and fifth-seeded Iowa on Thursday, Gayle had a career-high 15 points to help the Buckeyes down No. 4 seed Michigan State 68-58 on Friday.
They did so despite the absence of leading scorer Brice Sensabaugh (16.3 ppg), who ranks fourth nationally in scoring by freshmen, due to a sore knee suffered in the Iowa game.
Also, forward Zed Key (10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) missed his eighth straight game after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery on March 1.
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said he is unsure if Sensabaugh will be available Saturday.
“We had multiple guys step up and that’s what it takes in this environment,” Holtmann said.
The Boilermakers swept the season series from the Buckeyes. When Purdue rallied for a 71-69 road victory on Jan. 5, Ohio State fell to 2-1 in the conference and it started a tailspin that saw the Buckeyes lose 14 out of 15, including 82-55 at Purdue on Feb. 19.
Purdue was the 16th team to win the Big Ten regular-season title by at least three games and could be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that begins next week, but the Boilermakers won’t rest on their laurels.
They overcame a physical matchup against Rutgers for a 70-65 victory Friday.
“We just want to keep stacking wins, build our momentum,” Purdue forward Mason Gillis said. “Some people might come into a Big Ten tournament and just relax and get themselves ready for March Madness, but we want to keep building momentum, iron out things that we may improve on and then hammer home things that we’re doing well.”
The Boilermakers had a double bye to their first game in the quarterfinals, so the result against Rutgers might be an omen. The past three times that Purdue won its first game in the tournament, it reached the finals (2016, 2018, 2022).
Despite playing in the title game in three of the past six tournaments, the Boilermakers have just one Big Ten crown in their history (2009).
If the Boilermakers are going to win a second, they will need secondary scoring from players such as Gillis to back Big Ten Player of the Year Zach Edey, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds against Rutgers. Gillis grabbed nine rebounds and his 20 points were more than triple his season average (6.3).
“It’s his ability to get on the glass” that lifted the team, Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Gillis. “He gave a great effort and was ready to roll.”
–Field Level Media