Conference play is unforgiving in the Big Ten.
The hits keep coming. There are no breaks. Not this year. Not any year, usually.
And that's why the loser of Ohio State (16-5, 3-5) at Wisconsin (17-4, 4-4) on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN) will find itself out of the Big Ten race, with too much ground to cover to catch up with undefeated Michigan and one-loss Michigan State.
But there is more at stake here as well. Ohio State has very little to show for itself to the selection committee. Victories over Marquette and Notre Dame looked good in name only, with neither team appearing to be NCAA-bound. True, they were both away from Columbus -- one on the road and the other at a neutral site -- but it makes for a light case.
The answers for Ohio State's problems aren't complex. The Buckeyes can't hold a lead. Ohio State was up 10 points with five minutes to go against Penn State and lost in overtime. Even their defense failed them, as their best on-ball defender, Aaron Craft, couldn't disrupt or distract Penn State's D.J. Newbill enough to prevent a game winning shot.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is dealing with a foreign issue -- muddling in the middle of the conference standings, but he remains optimistic. Assistant coach Jeff Boals said the mood is still good and the Buckeyes realize they are still two or three possessions away from turning many of those losses into wins.
However, the reason the Penn State loss was so troubling is that it came in the midst of a pivotal two-game homestand. The Buckeyes won the first game over Illinois to end a four-game slide. Following the visit to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes go to Iowa. The schedule lightens up after that, with five of the final eight games coming at home. There are marquee win opportunities as well, against Michigan and Michigan State, as well as a payback opportunity against Minnesota, so to rule the Buckeyes out of a bid now would be naive.
But the time to act is now.
The situation is better at Wisconsin, with the Badgers’ stellar nonconference slate, including a home win over Florida, a neutral-court win over Saint Louis and a road win at Virginia. Those are three victories over teams that all could make deep March runs.
The Badgers' slide this month has been mostly about their defense. Wisconsin gave up 70 or more points in three straight losses, including 81 to Minnesota. The worst offense, though, might have been the Badgers’ inability to defend the 3-point line against Northwestern. The Wildcats made seven 3s and each one seemed to pound Wisconsin further into a hole.
In a text message sent Thursday night, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan lamented that there are too many equal teams in the conference. He's right. When Northwestern and Penn State can win at Wisconsin and Ohio State on the same night, it signifies the balance of the conference. Unfortunately, it also can mean fewer teams making the NCAA tournament if they continue to beat each other up.
Ohio State has put itself in a position where the need for an upset on the road is a must. Fall short and the opportunities thereafter begin to dwindle. The Buckeyes are in survival mode. Wisconsin needs to get its mojo back and recapture its defensive mindset to once again be a team to fear.
Both teams are ranked. But Ohio State at No. 24 was given the ranking as a sign of respect for what the Buckeyes should be, not for what they currently are this season. The Badgers at No. 14 are getting similar credit for what they were earlier in the season, not what they have become in the past few weeks.
Both have become too beatable.