Two Big Wins Renew NCAA Tournament Hopes for Ohio State, Though Its Path is a Narrow One

By Andy Anders on February 27, 2024 at 8:35 am
Dale Bonner celebration
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Less than two weeks after the death of the Chris Holtmann era at Ohio State, the team's 2023-24 season has been resurrected.

The bright light of hope blinded the Buckeye faithful following their team's 73-69 upset victory over then-No. 2 Purdue, then faded to a dim glimmer after a decisive defeat to Minnesota set a new program worst with a 17th consecutive road loss.

But a snapping of said streak in buzzer-beater fashion at Michigan State has once again – much like music icon Billy Joel – turned the lights back on.

The NCAA Tournament isn't outside the realm of possibility for Ohio State, something that seemed unfathomable just a few weeks ago.

Now, the Buckeyes aren't appearing in brackets from ESPN's Joe Lunardi, CBSSports' Jerry Palm or any of the 100 brackets aggregated by yet. But a clear path has emerged to get them in the hunt now that they possess three Quadrant 1 victories with their wins over the Spartans and Boilermakers.

It starts with picking up a Quadrant 2 win at home against Nebraska this Thursday. The Huskers hold a 20-8 record on the season and defeated the Buckeyes 83-69 in Lincoln earlier this year. Nebraska has been two different teams at home vs. on the road this season, however, posting a record of just 2-7 in hostile environments compared to a 17-1 mark in Pinnacle Bank Arena. That's easily the toughest barrier to clear for Ohio State to close its season on a four-game winning streak and get to 19 victories entering the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan, dead-last in the Big Ten and 8-20 overall, travels to Value City Arena on Sunday. A game at Rutgers, tied for 11th in the conference and 14-13 on the year, closes the campaign for the Buckeyes on March 10. That will be another chance for a Q2 win.

A victory or two in the conference tourney could then push Ohio State to 20 wins and beyond, with the potential for more Q1 and Q2 resume builders in that neutral environment.

If that's a quest the Buckeyes can complete – one that's far easier said than done – their case for the Big Dance would stack up favorably against a handful of other bubble teams.

Overall Record 16-12
Home 11-4
Road 1-8
Q1 3-6
Q2 1-5
NET 66th
SOS 48th

Take Ole Miss, one of the last four teams in, according to Palm and among the first four out per Lunardi and the Bracket Matrix. Ohio State already has a better NET ranking than the Rebels, 66th as compared to 75th. Both teams possess the same Q1 record at 3-6 and exactly one Q2 win, with Mississippi's record at 1-2 in Q2 games.

Where Ole Miss holds an advantage right now is in its overall record, which stands at 19-8. That's where the Buckeyes can close the gap, not just to the Rebels but to all bubble teams, with a late-season winning streak.

That'd also help the Buckeyes' case against a team like Utah, also among Palm's last four in and Lunardi's first four out. The Utes are 16-11 this season with a 3-7 Q1 record and 5-3 in Q2, ranked 54th in the NET.

Ohio State's strength of schedule is also a plus. At 48th, only a handful of bubble teams are comparable. Ole Miss and Utah are 66th and 73rd. Drake, one of the next four teams out per the matrix and Lunardi, is 155th.

Other arguments could be tough to make even with a great late-season run. Seton Hall is among the last four teams in for Lunardi and the Brack Matrix aggregation, but with a 5-5 Q1 and 3-2 Q2 record to go with an 18-9 overall mark, the Pirates seem to have a leg up on the Buckeyes barring a late-season collapse. Their current NET ranking is 61st, and they're 53rd in schedule strength.

Ohio State will also hope to avoid any surprise runs to a conference championship from teams on the bubble or outside the tourney picture entirely. Gonzaga is a squad to watch in that regard, currently on the bubble as a 22-6 WCC team. Saint Mary's has all but sealed a bid from atop the same conference, currently a projected No. 6 seed in the matrix. 

That's an issue to tackle when the time comes, though, and by the same token, the Buckeyes could make a shocking run to a Big Ten title and render this entire conversation moot as an automatic qualifier. To have any hope of an at-large bid, however, winning their final three regular-season games is critical.

But that's just it. There is, once more, hope for this year's Ohio State squad.

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