As College Basketball's Blue Bloods Have Struggled, Ohio State Has Surged As National Contender

By Dan Hope on February 10, 2021 at 8:35 am
John Calipari and Chris Holtmann

While Ohio State has outperformed expectations to emerge as one of college basketball’s best teams this season, most of the sport’s traditional powerhouses have fallen well short of expectations.

Duke and Kentucky both currently have losing records and will almost certainly need to win their conference tournaments just to make the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State is also currently excluded from most bracket projections, while North Carolina is hovering near the bubble.

One particularly striking illustration of how much the sport’s blue bloods have struggled this season: None of college basketball’s 13 all-time winningest programs were included in this week’s AP Top 25.

That’s certainly helped clear the path for Ohio State to rise all the way up to the No. 4 spot in this week’s AP poll, and it also opens the door for the Buckeyes to potentially make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

While this year’s Ohio State team doesn’t have the same star power as the Thad Matta-coached teams that made the Final Four in 2007 and 2012, the teams that theoretically should have the most star power – Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke finished with the three top-ranked classes for the 2020 recruiting cycle – might not even make the Big Dance.

What Ohio State has that those teams don’t is a strong core of veteran scholarship players, including two seniors (Kyle Young and C.J. Walker) and five juniors (Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow, Justice Sueing, Seth Towns and Duane Washington Jr.). According to KenPom, Ohio State ranks 93rd among all Division I basketball programs in team experience while North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke all rank outside the top 320.

In a year where teams lost a big chunk of their offseasons due to COVID-19, that seems to be making a bigger difference than ever before. Importantly to Ohio State, Chris Holtmann believes his team has a lot of maturity, which has seemingly helped the Buckeyes navigate the challenges of a different year more effectively than many other teams.

“What helps is a core of returning guys who have an understanding of how we do things and have embraced that – they’ve gotta embrace it – and then on top of that, the addition of just some really good kids, good players, good people,” Holtmann said after Ohio State’s most recent win over Maryland on Monday. “So in a year where you’re being challenged in a lot of ways, the quality of your team and their ability to focus, the maturity of your team, it’s essential. And we’ve got a mature team.

“Age and maturity don’t always equate. I’m a great example of that. But in this group here, we’ve got a mature group, and that maturity has allowed us, I think, to be able to play in different environments and have the necessary understanding of how to prepare to play your best.”

Building a team around three- and four-year players has been Holtmann’s vision since he arrived at Ohio State in 2017, and now that he’s had enough time to build a roster entirely with players he’s recruited, that vision seems to be coming into clear focus, positioning the Buckeyes – who have now won eight of their last nine games and lead the entire nation with nine Quadrant 1 wins this season – to be a real contender in March this year.

With the Buckeyes surging and so many of the sport’s typically elite programs having down years, just about every other team in college basketball looks beatable for Ohio State, making the Buckeyes’ ceiling look higher with every victory.

Just about is a key qualifier here, because No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor have been nothing short of dominant. Both are undefeated, and most of their games haven’t even been close; Gonzaga has won all but one of its 18 games by more than 10 points, while all but two of Baylor’s 17 wins have come by more than 10 points. They were expected to be the two most complete teams in college basketball this year, and they’ve more than lived up to the hype, making them the clear frontrunners to meet in this year’s national championship game. If Ohio State beat either of those teams, it would still be an upset.

There’s reason to feel confident in Ohio State’s capability to beat anyone else right now, though, and anything can happen in a 40-minute game during March Madness. With many of the usual suspects looking like non-factors in this year’s race to make the Final Four, that’s all the more reason to believe the Buckeyes could be among college basketball’s last teams standing in Indianapolis come late March and potentially even early April.

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