Ohio State spent most of the season ranked and contending for a Big Ten title before the wheels fell off the bus and the Buckeyes faceplanted into the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight it’s worth asking if their home win over a top ranked Duke was something people put too much emphasis on, as the rest of the non-conference slate for Ohio State included losses to Xavier and Florida, a buzzer beater to knock off Akron and struggling with Niagara and Towson.
The Buckeyes have simply been inconsistent all year long. After a 9-2 start the Buckeyes have only won more than two games in a row once, and that streak was a three game winning streak against Penn State, IUPUI and Minnesota. Naturally when Ohio State started to fade down the stretch, they then proceeded to land a big comeback win against Indiana and then a massive road win at Illinois. They then followed that with losses to Maryland and Nebraska.
Now we have an Ohio State team that has shown massive potential but as I said elsewhere, the Buckeyes more or less play up (or down) to their opponent almost every night. The Buckeyes are 1-4 over their last five games and were dropped in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament by Penn State. Will the Buckeyes be able to return to form? They have more than enough talent to do so, even if they haven’t consistently been able to most of the season.
In their first game the Buckeyes draw a recent fan favorite in Loyola Chicago. The Ramblers made an improbable run to the Final Four in 2018 and returned to form last year on their way to a Sweet 16 appearance after knocking off top seeded Illinois in the second round. In their first year under new head coach Drew Valentine, older brother of former Michigan State star Denzel Valentine, the Ramblers went 25-7 and were a potential bubble team before winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
The Ramblers offense is solid, but nothing spectacular. They make up for that by giving up only 61.7 points per game, ranking in the top 20 in the country. Their defense will have a major test today against a highly efficient Ohio State program. If Loyola Chicago wants to move on they’ll need to find a way to slow down E.J. Liddell inside.
If Ohio State wants to avoid an upset on Friday they’ll need to a big day from star E.J. Liddell. They’ll also need Malaki Branham to continue to perform at a high level while they’ll need their role players to contribute. Ohio State’s defense isn’t particularly good, so if their offense isn’t rolling against a stout Loyola defense they’re going to have problems.
If They Advance
A win over Loyola Chicago would likely result in the Buckeyes playing Villanova in the Round of 32. Nova won the Big East Tournament and closed the season on a 10-1 run. While Villanova rolled down the stretch, eight of their last nine wins came by single digits. The Wildcats are led by Collin Gillespie, who is averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting 42.2% from three. KenPom ranks the Wildcats as the eighth best offense in his adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. That sits a bit better than their 28th ranked defense, though both numbers are above the Buckeyes.
If Ohio State ends up in the Sweet 16 there is a highly intriguing, albeit unlikely, matchup that could take place against Michigan. Of course the Wolverines would need to beat Colorado State (somewhat likely) and then Tennessee (less likely). The most likely Sweet 16 matchup would come against a Tennessee team that was more or less snubbed, losing out on a two seed to a Duke program that had an inferior resume to basically every three seed outside of Wisconsin (who, naturally, were the 9th overall seed in the tourney).
Tennessee doesn’t have as efficient of an offense as some of the other top teams in the tournament, but they do have one of the best defenses. The Vols have ridden that defense to wins over Arizona, Kentucky (twice), Auburn, LSU, Arkansas and a slew of other teams. While Tennessee’s offense isn’t as good as the Buckeyes, their defense would provide a massive challenge to Ohio State.
An improbable run to the Elite 8 would include a laundry list of potential suitors, including Arizona, Houston and fellow Big Ten school Illinois. Houston could also make a run to the Elite 8, but will face a tough task in the second round if they draw the Illini. Sitting on the right side of the bracket, a Final Four appearance would likely come against Kansas or Auburn if the Midwest Region isn’t loaded with upsets. There is some potential there, especially with Providence, Iowa and Wisconsin holding the 3-5 seeds.
Ohio State is a hard team to predict when it comes to how they’ll perform this March. If you look at their resume heading into the season, they have wins over Duke, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Seton Hall. They also almost knocked off Purdue on the road. On the flipside, though, they’ve lost to Nebraska, Penn State and Maryland. Not to be outdone, they also struggled and probably should have lost to Akron while having issues with a number of inferior programs they should have easily beaten.
That’s kind of the theme with this Buckeyes team and the feeling some fans have about Chris Holtmann’s tenure in Columbus. To summarize the Buckeyes this year, they have the talent and potential to be a legitimate contender and a top ten team, but they also could lose any night to any potential opponent and no one would bat an eye. That inconsistency and inability to piece things together has started to wear on Ohio State fans. A team that could have won the Big Ten ultimately finished the year 19-11, a six seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a loss to Penn State in their first game of the conference tournament.
Taking that into consideration you have an Ohio State team that absolutely no one would be surprised if they came out and lost on Friday to Loyola Chicago. At the same time I don’t think anyone would be that surprised if Ohio State picked off Loyola Chicago and Villanova this week and made it to the second weekend. Will we get good Ohio State this week? Or will we get the underachieving Buckeyes? I’m not sure even Ohio State fans know the answer to that question.