With its performance over the last two months, Ohio State has already established itself as one of college basketball’s best teams.
Ohio State has won its last seven straight games, tying the longest winning streak against Big Ten opponents since Chris Holtmann became the Buckeyes’ head coach, and 10 of its last 11 games. In a conference that’s widely considered to be college basketball’s best this year, where almost no game can be considered an easy win, Ohio State has compiled a 12-4 record in Big Ten play and an 18-4 overall record, including five wins against teams who were ranked in the top 15 when the Buckeyes played them.
Still, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes haven’t been fully embraced as a national championship contender yet. As of Friday afternoon, Ohio State’s odds (per Bovada) of winning the national championship were listed at 12/1 or +1200, the fourth-best odds of any team but still well behind the odds of the top-three teams: Gonzaga (+275), Baylor (+275) and Michigan (+650).
Ohio State wasn’t projected to be a championship contender going into the 2020-21 season, and the Buckeyes don’t have any true superstars. That’s left many to wonder whether the Buckeyes are really one of college basketball’s elite teams – as in, a team that’s capable of getting to and winning in the Final Four – or if they’ve been an overachiever.
If the Buckeyes can beat Michigan on Sunday, however, they’ll prove they need to be taken seriously as a threat to win it all.
That won’t be easy. While Ohio State will be the home team and is entering Sunday’s game as a slight favorite over its rival, the Wolverines are the third-ranked team in the country for a reason. They’ve won all but one of their 16 games – their only loss came on the road at Minnesota, where Ohio State also lost – and they’ve outscored their opponents by an average of 13.5 points. KenPom currently ranks Michigan as the seventh-best team nationally on both offense and defense; Ohio State, by contrast, is third offensively but 66th defensively.
After Michigan’s most recent win over Rutgers on Thursday night, Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell said Michigan is the best Big Ten team he’s seen since he became Rutgers’ coach in 2016. And Holtmann believes the Wolverines are as good as they’re being hyped up to be.
“They’re phenomenal. They’re a legitimate national title contender. I really believe that,” Holtmann said Friday. “When you look at everything they’ve done, they’ve only lost one time in league play, and they’ve blown out a lot of people. Right after Purdue beat us here, they got Purdue pretty good at Purdue. They’ve just been really impressive.”
Ohio State already has some huge wins on its résumé, including road wins over the other two top contenders in the Big Ten, Illinois (which is currently ranked fifth) and Iowa (which is ranked 11th). Playing Michigan still looks like an even tougher test because of how strong the Wolverines are both offensively and defensively. Led by a trio of double-digit scorers in 7-foot-2 center Hunter Dickinson (14.6 points per game), 6-foot-7 forward Isaiah Livers (14.5 points per game) and 6-foot-9 guard Franz Wagner (12.6 points per game), Michigan has the most talent and is the most well-rounded of any team Ohio State has faced yet, and Holtmann knows the Buckeyes must be on top of their game to have a chance to win.
He’s looking forward to seeing how his team responds to that challenge, knowing he’ll learn something about his team based on how it performs in what can, without hyperbole, be called Ohio State’s game of the year.
“We’re going to need to play our very best,” Holtmann said. “And I’m excited about this, because we’ve got a group that I think really embraces the idea of playing the very best, and we’re excited about the challenge. I know our guys are.
“It’s a great challenge for us to see kind of where we’re both at. I think you love that about playing really good people.”
Sunday’s game will be an opportunity for everyone else to learn something about Ohio State, too.
Rivalry implications aside, Sunday’s game is far from a be-all, end-all for the Buckeyes. They still have home games against Iowa and Illinois remaining on their regular-season schedule and the Big Ten Tournament to come, leaving them still plenty of opportunities to further bolster their résumé before the NCAA Tournament. Even if it loses on Sunday, Ohio State could still earn a No. 1 seed if it finishes the slate strong.
That said, Sunday’s game against Michigan is an opportunity for Ohio State to make clear it truly belongs among college basketball’s best of the best this season. Beat Michigan on Sunday, and Ohio State will be the No. 3 team in the country when the new rankings drop on Monday, leaving the Buckeyes with more margin for error to lock up a spot on the top seed line even if they lose a couple games down the stretch.
It might not change the stranglehold Gonzaga and Baylor have had all year long on the top two spots in the rankings, and those two teams will almost certainly remain the national championship favorites as long as they remain undefeated. But if Ohio State can beat the Wolverines, there will be reason to believe it’s good enough to beat anybody – including the two at the top of college basketball.