At the outset of the 2011-2012 season, Ohio State was pegged as one of the best teams in the nation. In fact, many analysts, experts, and rankings thought the Buckeyes to be the best. And for most of the non-conference schedule, that seemed to be a legitimate assessment. Ohio State handled Florida and drilled a tired Duke team at home, passing the season’s first two tests with flying colors. The third didn’t go quite as well thanks to Jared Sullinger’s ailing back; as spasms sidelined the big man, OSU fell to Kansas on the road.
Still, the team rolled into Big Ten play with only that lone loss. Their conference opener was a blowout win over Northwestern, and it appeared as though repeating as league champs wouldn’t be all that difficult.
How quickly things can change.
Road losses to Indiana and Illinois showed the team’s vulnerability, and though the Buckeyes bounced back from losing two of four by putting together a solid six-game winning streak, the rest of the Big Ten was set to prove that nothing would come easily this season.
The Buckeyes went on two lose three of their next five games, falling to both Michigan and Michigan State before dropping a heart-breaker at home to Wisconsin. The defeats sent OSU tumbling in the national polls; the one-time one-seed suddenly looked more like a three.
As Michigan and Michigan State were getting stronger, the Bucks were fading. They looked too young, too inexperienced. Sullinger had seemingly regressed from his stellar freshman year, and his supporting cast didn’t seem equal to the task of winning the best conference in the country. A last-second two-point win over Northwestern did little to ease the growing concern; the Buckeyes allowed the Wildcats to get back in the game and very nearly walk away with a crushing victory.
This team, so lauded earlier in the year, looked full of holes. Beatable. And a regular season finale in East Lansing threatened to not only finish the year on a low note, but also to send the Bucks to a third place finish in conference.
The first half of Sunday’s matchup with the Spartans was grim. MSU led by as many as 15 points, the home crowd was a force, and Ohio State looked lost. Down nine at the half, the Buckeyes looked outmatched. They appeared to be on their way to four losses in their final seven games.
Coming out of the break they seemed to rally, gaining some life. Hitting some key shots. As the Spartans struggled to get back in rhythm, the 29-38 deficit was eaten away. At the 18-minute mark it was a three-point game and the Buckeyes were looking good.
Two minutes later the Michigan State lead was back to nine. Comeback attempted, comeback denied.
Luckily, the Buckeyes had one more push left in them. And it came from their lone senior.
William Buford was having some uncharacteristic struggles at the free throw line on Sunday; the 90% shooter couldn’t seem to find his stroke and finished hitting only seven of 12 (58%). Fortunately for Ohio State, he was busy making up for that shortcoming.
Buford’s 19 second-half points propelled the Buckeyes to a monster victory, a road win that redefined their season and reset expectations heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. He shot seven of ten from the floor, including two three-pointers. And in the team’s final possession, he drilled a jump shot from just inside the three-point line at the top of the key to put OSU up 72-70.
It was one of those magical shots by a guy who was, quite simply, feeling it. He knew what he wanted to do and did it. The shot was contested. The shot didn’t look particularly pretty. Buford was moving as he received a pass from Aaron Craft, coming around the defense in the middle of the floor. Although the game clock had dwindled to just a few seconds, the shot didn’t appear to be the best that the Buckeyes might have hoped for.
It didn’t matter.
Buford was dead-on, draining the jumper with one second left on the clock and ending Michigan State’s hopes of an outright Big Ten title. In an unlikely twist, the Michigan Wolverines were Buford’s biggest fans, needing an Ohio State win to claim their share of a three-way tie for first. As the shot went in, the Michigan players celebrated a victory, both for themselves and for their biggest rivals.
Though it was hardly an easy or comfortable win, the upset changed the perception of the conference. Whereas OSU had once been a clear favorite, a tremendous season by Michigan State had the Spartans, not the Buckeyes, looking like the team to beat. A loss in their finale would have dropped the Bucks to 12-6 in league play, which would have tied Wisconsin in third place. Instead, Ohio State, MSU, and Michigan all earned their share of a title.
The Big Ten, which will certainly send at least six teams to the NCAA Tournament, now has the seedings and brackets set for its conference tourney as well. Despite the loss, Michigan State retained the top seed, with Michigan and Ohio State taking second and third, respectively. Although the trio of champions each finished 1-1 against the two others, the Buckeyes lost the tiebreaker by being the only one of the three to have been defeated by the Badgers.
Ohio State is now three wins away from a Big Ten tournament title. Following their bye, the Bucks must face the winner of Purdue/ Nebraska then the winner of the game between Michigan and Northwestern or Minnesota.
In terms of the Big Dance the Buckeyes are most likely locked into a 2-seed regardless of what happens, although a poor showing could theoretically knock them down to the three-line.