The 2016-2017 Ohio State men’s basketball season ended with a dispiriting loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to the worst team in the league, Rutgers.
The Buckeyes slunk out of the Verizon Center in Washington that Wednesday night with only two small pieces of consolation. First, thanks to the sparse first-day crowd, not many people had seen them get humiliated. Second, the season, which had basically been a solid four months of frustration and disappointment, was now over.
In the months that followed, the entire coaching staff and nearly half the team’s roster departed. There wasn’t a lot of certainty going into the 2017-18 season, but one thing was sure: things were going to be different.
As the Buckeyes head down the stretch in the first year for new head coach Chris Holtmann, things are indeed very different. The program that finished 11th in the Big Ten a year ago currently sits alone in first place, a game ahead of both the nation’s no. 3 team, Purdue, and no. 4 Michigan State. OSU has head-to-head wins over both, leaving them with not only a lead in the standings, but also a tie-breaker.
To put it in baseball terms, with four games left to play, the Buckeyes’ magic number is three. Win any three of the four remaining games (at Penn State, at Michigan, vs. Rutgers, at Indiana), or win two and have both the Boilermakers and Spartans lose once, and OSU will win the league and enter the Big Ten Tournament as the top seed.
A year after they were out of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday, they are in line for a double-bye, meaning they won’t even take the court until Friday.
Unlike a year ago, everyone will be watching, and neither the team nor their fans will want to see the end of a season that has been filled with everything but frustration and disappointment.
The Bucks are already guaranteed to go deeper into March than they did a year ago, but how far can they really get?
Right now, both traditional bracket predictions and advanced metrics have them pegged as roughly a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They could end up a line higher or lower than that, but barring a total collapse or an unbeaten run from now to Selection Sunday, they’ll probably be in that range.
That puts them on target to make the Sweet 16. If that’s where the ride ends, then a team picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten’s preseason media poll could finish the year somewhere around 11th in the nation.
However, there are reasons – both subjective and objective – to think the Buckeyes could go even further than that.
On a subjective basis, OSU does a lot of the things teams need to do to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament. They have veteran guard play, particularly at the point. C.J. Jackson has taken good care of the ball this season, turning it over more than three times only once since November. He’s also one of the league’s best free throw shooters, at 81.9%. That means the guy who will have the ball in his hands when OSU is protecting a narrow lead late in a game is the same one the opposing team doesn’t want to see at the line.
They have a star player, Keita Bates-Diop, who scores nearly 20 points per game, but who is also a solid rebounder. He, too, is reliable at the line, hitting 78.4% of his free throws. That means the guy who Jackson will be looking to get the ball to in crunch time is another person opponents won’t want to foul.
They have also developed additional scoring options in forwards Kaleb Wesson and Jae’Sean Tate who have picked up the slack on nights when Bates-Diop’s shot isn’t falling.
They play tight defense and are efficient on offense. There is no glaring weak point to their game.
It’s largely a veteran team that has now proven itself in big moments and tough environments. Pulling out a comeback win at a hostile Mackey Arena against a top-five team like Purdue is a great proxy for the pressures OSU could face on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and they have now shown that they can live up to that moment.
Objectively, they are officially one of the best teams in the nation. The Buckeyes rank 11th in KenPom’s ratings, which are based on efficiency on both offense and defense. They are one of just seven teams that ranks among the nation’s 30 best on both offense and defense there.
The TourneyCast projection system from Bart Torvik has them slightly better than 50/50 to make the Sweet 16 at the moment. More tellingly, the system views any game after that as effectively a tossup. They have a 1-in-4 shot to reach the Elite 8, and 1-in-8 to get to the Final Four. There is no point at which their odds fall off a cliff. The numbers are speaking, and speaking loudly – this team can play with anyone.
If you really want to dream, they’re given a 6% chance of making the title game, and a 2.3% chance of winning it all. That’s better than North Carolina or Kansas. Only seven teams in the entire country have better championship odds than that.
It’s only the second week of February and this season is already a massive success. It’s going to go down as one of the most fun and unexpected runs in Buckeye sports history.
But when the calendar changes to March, there is now a very real chance that it could end up as much more than that.