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Four-Point Play: Ohio State's offense keeps struggling, Arkansas strengthens résumé

Indiana logged its second upset of the week by knocking off No. 22 Ohio State. (AJ Mast/Icon SMI) Indiana logged its second upset of the week by knocking off No. 22 Ohio State. (AJ Mast/Icon SMI)

Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight one notable team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. Expect this column every Sunday.

Ohio State comes up short again

The average margin of defeat in Ohio State’s seven conference losses before Sunday was 6.14 points. None of them came by more than 10 points. In three of them, including two in overtime, fewer than five points separated the Buckeyes and their opponent at the final whistle. Ohio State dropped another close decision on Sunday, losing 72-64 at Indiana to fall to 9-8 in conference play.

Sunday’s loss provided yet another indication of why Ohio State, with its offensive limitations, could be vulnerable to an early-round upset in the NCAA Tournament. When Ohio State rolled to a 15-0 record to open the season, the running assumption was that the Buckeyes’ defense was so good, it didn’t need to score that many points to win. But in Big Ten play it’s become clear Ohio State can’t overcome its problems on offense with stifling D.

The Buckeyes have scored an average of 1.033 points per possession in conference play, good for sixth among Big Ten teams, while yielding a league-best 0.957. But in their seven losses before Sunday, they scored 0.95 PPP and allowed 1.19. Coach Thad Matta’s team is going to defend well more often than not, but if an opposing team gets into a shooting groove, will the Buckeyes be able to keep up?

That’s why the NCAA Tournament’s format is a perilous prospect for a team like Ohio State. If the Buckeyes can’t score consistently – and they haven’t proven that they can -- they’re going to have to ground out close games. Ohio State could be exactly the type of team any hot-shooting, upset-minded underdog wants to draw.

On Sunday, junior forward LaQuinton Ross, who averaged 15 points to lead Ohio State to wins over Iona, Iowa State and Arizona in last year’s NCAA Tournament, scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. matched him on 9-of-15 and also grabbed five rebounds. But Ohio State’s three other starters – senior point guard Aaron Craft, junior forward Sam Thompson and junior center Amir Williams – combined for just 17 points.

About 30 minutes before the game, Indiana coach Tom Crean announced on Twitter that freshman forward and likely future first-round pick Noah Vonleh (11.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg) would miss the game with foot inflammation. Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, senior forward Will Sheehey and sophomore forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea picked up the scoring slack.

Ferrell scored a game-high 20 points; Sheehey followed up his 30-point game against Iowa last week with 19; and Mosquera-Perea, who played just five minutes over Ohio State’s last two games, logged 15 and matched his career-high of eight points.

The Buckeyes currently sit in sixth place in the Big Ten. Only the top four teams in the conference earn a first-round bye in the league Tournament, which begins next Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Just a half game separates the Buckeyes, who host Michigan State in a week to close the regular season, and fourth place Iowa and Nebraska.

Before Sunday, most mock brackets pegged Ohio State as a six or seven seed. The Buckeyes have lost two games to a team (Penn State) ranked outside the top 100 of the RPI and claim just one top-25 win. They could use a win over the Spartans, and maybe a couple more in the conference tournament, to improve their seeding. Because the way it looks now, Ohio State could have trouble advancing past the first weekend.

Coty Clarke and Arkansas had plenty to celebrate after logging wins over Kentucky and Georgia. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)Coty Clarke and Arkansas had plenty to celebrate after logging wins over Kentucky and Georgia. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Arkansas: big bubble winner

College basketball fans and media members have spent the past two months wondering how many teams the Southeastern Conference will send to the NCAA Tournament. As many as four or five seemed plausible at one point, though the doomsday scenario of two was never dismissed outright.

At the top of the league, Florida and Kentucky were proclaimed at-large locks. Below them was a muddled middle-pack group of tourney hopefuls scrapping on the bubble  – Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee – from which no team had truly distinguished itself.

It was bad loss after bad loss for the SEC’s bubble denizens, and because there are only two surefire tourney teams in this league, good wins are hard to find. Even beating the Wildcats, who after Saturday’s loss at South Carolina appear on track to earn a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, might not qualify as the type of signature win these fringe tourney teams need to get them over the hump. The only big resumé-boosting win available in the SEC is Florida…and yeah, good luck with that.

This week, Arkansas didn’t beat Florida, but the Razorbacks did do enough to inject life into their once-deteriorating at-large candidacy. Arkansas beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena Thursday to complete a season sweep of the Wildcats and took care of Georgia at home on Saturday. The two wins extended the Razorbacks’ winning streak to five and they’ve now won seven of their last eight games, the lone blemish over that stretch a one-point loss at Missouri on February 13.

With remaining games against Ole Miss and at Alabama, the Razorbacks should be able to close the season with seven consecutive wins (though that game in Tuscaloosa will be tough; the probability Arkansas wins is 54 percent, according to kenpom.com).

Depending on how things shake out over the last week-plus of league play and in conference tournaments, Arkansas – once left for dead in the at-large discussion – could make the field as an 11 or 12 seed. If it does, the Razorbacks will look back on this week as a pivot point in a season that not long ago looked destined to end with another disappointing tourney miss.

In the win over Kentucky, Arkansas trailed by five with under five minutes to go. Two layups from forward Alandise Harris, a jumper from guard Anthlon Bell, two clutch free throws from guard Rashad Madden and a few untimely Wildcats turnovers closed the gap and sent the game into overtime. In the extra session, the Razorbacks converted six free throws and got a big three-point shot from forward Coty Clarke to edge Kentucky, who scored just seven points.

Sophomore guard Michael Qualls, who you probably best remember for tip-dunking the Razorbacks to a three-point win over Kentucky at the overtime buzzer at Bud Walton Arena in early January, led Arkansas with 14 points. This was only the Razorbacks’ fifth conference road win in two-plus seasons under Anderson.

Saturday’s win won’t help Arkansas as much on selection Sunday, but it did come against a team that remains in sole possession of third place in the SEC (Arkansas is one game back in fourth). Qualls came up big again for the Razorbacks, scoring 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbing four rebounds in 30 minutes. Arkansas also got 23 points from Clarke and a monster one-handed alley-oop dunk from Harris.

“Very encouraging,” Anderson said Saturday in an interview with ArkansasRazorbacks.com. “Our guys are getting better. That’s what you want this time of year.

“We have plenty of room to grow and a lot of places to go.”

In addition to two wins over Kentucky, Arkansas can point to two solid nonconference Ws over Southern Methodist and Minnesota, a 4-4 record against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, just one bad loss (against Texas A&M) and late season success in conference road games. The Razorbacks are commonly regarded as team that’s tough to beat at in its own gym, but under Anderson they haven’t done much on the road.

Thursday’s win at Kentucky was the Razorbacks’ third in their last four away from home. Surely, the committee will take that into consideration when vetting Arkansas’ credentials. A win at Alabama to close the regular season would provide another counterpoint to the “Arkansas can’t hack it anywhere but Bud Walton” refrain.

This was a big week for the Razorbacks, but they need to finish strong to keep themselves in the mix.

Kevin Pangos helped Gonzaga to two key wins which will help their tournament résumé.  (Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports)Kevin Pangos helped Gonzaga to two key wins which will help their tournament résumé. (Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports)

Pangos, Dower keep Gonzaga out of trouble

Gonzaga began last week in a relatively unfamiliar position. In 14-plus seasons under Mark Few, rarely had the Zags’ tourney status been so uncertain, so deep into conference play. That’s not to suggest Gonzaga wasn’t still in good position to make the field. The Zags were fine, but not totally safe.

Most of Few’s teams have built up enough equity in non-conference play to avoid sweating out the end of the conference season. The 2012-13 team is an extreme example – the Zags earned their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in program history – but consider that when Gonzaga began its conference season on January 3, it had already beaten one ranked team and seven major conference foes.

The best non-conference win Gonzaga can claim this season is at West Virginia, who has an RPI of 83 and probably won’t make the NCAA Tournament. The Zags would have had opportunities for two more decent non-conference Ws, but their loss to Dayton in the first round of the Maui Invitational precluded potential matchups with Baylor and Cal. Gonzaga also lost on a neutral court to Kansas State, a team the Zags drilled at home last season, and dropped a big road game against Memphis.

Still, even after consecutive road losses to BYU and San Diego a couple of weeks ago, it was probably too early to panic – too early to consider the unthinkable scenario of a Few-coached team missing the Tournament (and not only because Gonzaga can still get in by winning the West Coast Conference tournament).

But a couple of losses this week at Pacific and Saint Mary’s would have pushed Few’s team into dangerous territory. On Thursday, preseason All-WCC point guard Kevin Pangos scored 18 points in 38 minutes to lead the Zags past the Tigers, and forward Sam Dower – who played just 16 minutes and had six points against Pacific – scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Saturday to help Gonzaga crush WCC rival Saint Mary’s, 75-47.

In 30 games this season, Pangos has averaged 14.6 points and nearly 4 assists while playing 87.5 percent of available minutes and posting an offensive rating of 120.6. Dower leads his team in effective field goal (62.4) and true shooting percentage (66.0) and has posted the highest ORating (126.3) among teammates who have played at least 50 percent of available minutes. Pangos and Dower have been two of Gonzaga’s best performers all season, and their contributions this week were pivotal in helping the Zags avoid two more losses and clinch the outright WCC regular season title.

Gonzaga’s two wins don’t ensure it will make the field, but they do give the Zags some breathing room in case they don’t win the conference tournament. While the Zags have gone just 1-4 against the RPI top-50, they have an 8-4 record against the top 100 and an RPI of 27. But with zero wins against surefire NCAA Tournament teams (BYU is on the bubble) and two sub-100 losses, the Zags would do well to win the WCC tourney.

Cronin blows a gasket 

Midway through the second half of Cincinnati’s loss at UConn on Saturday, Bearcats coach Mick Cronin disagreed with an out-of-bounds call made by official Ted Valentine. Cronin shouted at Valentine, the quintessential officiating showman, whose well-earned reputation for drawing undue attention to himself has earned him the nickname 'TV Teddy.'

Valentine got in Cronin’s face and the Cincinnati coach was so riled up, he shoved an assistant coach and had to be restrained by his players.

"My beef with that is guys like Mick Cronin and Buzz Williams (of Marquette) of the world, we deal with some of it," Cronin, who was not assessed a technical foul for the incident, told ESPN.com Saturday. "When nobody gets in the Jim Boeheim's face or Mike Krzyzewski's face.

“He got in my face, I didn't get in his face. Am I allowed to T him? That's what I asked him."

The loss keeps Cincinnati tied with Louisville for first place in the American Athletic Conference.

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