Back in January, Ohio State had lost five of six games and was on course for the NIT. What a difference a fortnight makes, eh?
This is not the same Buckeye team that blew games against Nebraska and Penn State. The Buckeyes earned road wins over Wisconsin and Iowa, and followed that up with a thumping of Purdue. The Buckeyes are back over .500, but that doesn't feel like enough.
This isn't the season to feel warm and fuzzy about a 10-8 record. If the Big Ten holds to form, Ohio State has an opportunity to do something many thought impossible: win the Big Ten championship.
Under normal circumstances, this would be insane. Ohio State is 6-5, three and a half games behind 9-1 Michigan State. The difference between this year and others is the extraordinary parity of the Big Ten.
If you want to understand how topsy-turvy the Big Ten is, try this: Ohio State's three game winning streak is the longest in the conference by two whole games.
The Big Ten doesn't conform to a typical Bell curve, with one or two elite teams, a bunch of teams ranging from good to mediocre, and a couple piles of puke. This year's Big Ten has two distinct groups, really good and middling, with only Minnesota in between.
At the top of the standings, the Big Ten's top five teams (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin) are amazingly close. In the esteemed Pomeroy rankings, the five title contenders are separated by only ten spots, by far the most competitive of all major conferences.
The result: with all the contenders being flawed and at a similar skill level, every game between top five teams is a toss-up.
At the same time, the bottom of the Big Ten is uncommonly strong. Only two teams miss the top 100; one is a narrow miss (Purdue, 103rd) and the other, Northwestern, is 5-6 with road wins at Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana.
With the exception of Illinois, the bottom seven teams have all beaten a ranked opponent – and Illinois was nationally ranked to start 2014. The result: upsets galore.
Ohio State will be the favorite in each of its last seven games; should they finish 13-5, the Buckeyes can win or share the Big Ten title with a little help from their friends.
Wisconsin And Iowa
Currently, Wisconsin is half a game behind Ohio State in the standings, and they have games against Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa to go, the latter two away. They're going to lose one of those, dropping them out of title contention. They are beneath concern.
Iowa is one of the only Big Ten teams not to have a mortifying loss in conference play, but there are questions about their ability to beat elite teams. Before Saturday's game against Michigan, the Hawkeyes were 1-6 against top 20 teams with that one team being formerly despondent Ohio State.
Ohio State is a game behind Iowa, and the Hawkeyes are streaky. They seem due for a road shocker against Penn State or Northwestern, don’t you think?
Michigan And Michigan State
Until a couple weeks ago, the Big Ten looked like Michigan and Michigan State's playground. Several embarrassing losses later, the Big Ten is wide open again.
Michigan started Big Ten play 8-0 in spite of missing Mitch McGary, even beating Michigan State in East Lansing. In the last couple of games, though, Indiana beat the Wolverines by double digits and Iowa shredded their defense.
As it so happens, Ohio State has a home date with Michigan in two days. Aaron Craft and/or Shannon Scott should be able to shut down team MVP Nik Stauskas on the perimeter, and if Michigan follows a loss with home losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, OSU will have a tiebreaker in the standings.
Michigan State has total command of the conference at 9-1 and no embarrassing losses – at least in conference. Last Sunday, the Spartans lost to 12-9 Georgetown and proved they're not invincible either.
For OSU to catch up to Michigan State, the Spartans have to drop the three road games against Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State in the season finale. The problem: someone has to win the second Michigan/Michigan State game, giving them control of the conference.
The Spartans are projected to go 14-4, meaning that Ohio State needs them to suffer an upset. That could happen against Iowa or Minnesota or one of the Big Ten's underclass pulling a signature WTF road win.
What This Really Means
How likely is all of this to happen? Not very. Ohio State tied for a conference championship at 13-5 two years ago and it could happen again, but the Buckeyes need a lot of breaks to get back in the title picture. Here's the real point of chasing a conference championship: to set a high benchmark.
Ever since losing five of six games, this team has shown an offensive spark that wasn’t there before. Some people reversed trends– Amedeo Della Valle came up big against Wisconsin, Aaron Craft went berserk against Iowa, and Lenzelle Smith hit three after three against Purdue.
Ohio State may be unpredictable in terms of where the offense comes from, but when on any given night several people can pick up the slack, that makes the Buckeyes dangerous.
Slowly but surely the team is developing. Amir Williams is more aggressive than he's ever been, Shannon Scott is finishing at the rim, LaQuinton Ross is getting more comfortable. It's taken longer than expected, but they're finally jelling.
Throughout the six game slump, Thad Matta kept saying that the team's biggest challenge was maintaining mental toughness. Well, there's no better way to keep everyone on the right track than picking one overarching goal that everyone buys into.
Pursuing a Big Ten championship will help the team develop resiliency it needs for the rest of the year. Actually winning the title would just be icing on the cake.