Skull Session: Ohio State is No. 2 in ESPN’s Post-Spring Top 25 and Nikola Jokic Calls Mike Conley “The Most Underrated Player in the League”

By Chase Brown on May 21, 2024 at 5:00 am
Mike Conley
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Skull Session.

The last time Ohio State baseball was in Omaha, the BUCKS GOT HOT.

Can Ohio State capture the same magic five years later?

We shall see.

Have a good Tuesday.

 POST-SPRING RANKINGS SZN. In January, Mark Schlabach of ESPN posted the Worldwide Leader’s way-too-early top 25 poll for the 2024 college football season. While other college football writers outlets — ahem… Pro Football Focus and USA TODAY… ahem — had Ohio State barely in their top 10s, ESPN ranked the Buckeyes fifth behind Georgia, Texas, Oregon and Alabama.

On Monday, Schlabach posted ESPN’s “post-spring” top 25 for 2024. Ohio State improved three spots in the poll, checking in at second behind Georgia and ahead of Texas, Oregon and Notre Dame. Here is how Schlabach described each of those teams in his article:

No. 5 - Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish have high hopes heading into coach Marcus Freeman's third season, and understandably so after they landed quarterback transfer Riley Leonard (Duke) and brought back former offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, the architect of LSU's high-flying offense the past two seasons. Leonard missed most of the spring camp after undergoing a follow-up surgery on his right ankle injury. He's expected to be ready for the start of fall practices. He'll benefit from having transfer receivers Beaux Collins (Clemson) and Kris Mitchell (Florida International).

The Irish have to replace bookend offensive tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher; Charles Jagusah and Tosh Baker were working on the left and right sides, respectively, during the spring. Perhaps the biggest reason for the optimism around the Irish is the defense. Howard Cross III and Rylie Mills lead a salty defensive line, and cornerback Benjamin Morrison and safety Xavier Watts are stars in the secondary. The Irish will play only three true road games at Texas A&M, Purdue and USC this season. They'll play Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Navy at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey and Army at Yankee Stadium in New York.

No. 4 - Oregon

In just two seasons as a head coach, Oregon's Dan Lanning has established himself as one of the best in the FBS. His teams have a 22-5 record and back-to-back bowl victories. With the Ducks moving to the Big Ten, Lanning's blueprint for building a physical team on both sides of the ball should help ease the transition. Former Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel takes over for departed star Bo Nix. Texas A&M transfer Evan Stewart might form a potent one-two punch with Tez Johnson at receiver. Jordan James is back after running for 759 yards with 11 touchdowns in 2023. Safety Kobe Savage (Kansas State) and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad (Washington) were nice additions to a pass defense that led the Pac-12 last season, allowing 215.9 yards per game. Oregon plays a home contest against Ohio State on Oct. 12, but its November schedule will determine if it's going to be a season to remember -- Michigan (road), Maryland (home), Wisconsin (road) and Washington (home).

No. 3 - Texas

After guiding the Longhorns to a 12-win campaign and a spot in the CFP in 2023, coach Steve Sarkisian's challenge is sustaining that success in the SEC. The Longhorns got a break when the SEC schedule-makers rolled out the red carpet with a slate that includes true road games at Vanderbilt, Arkansas and rival Texas A&M. Texas will face an early road test at Michigan, its annual trip to Dallas to play Oklahoma and a home game against Georgia. Offensively, the Longhorns should be as good as anyone in the FBS with quarterback Quinn Ewers and a veteran offensive line returning. Transfers Isaiah Bond (Alabama), Matthew Golden (Houston) and Silas Bolden (Oregon State) and top recruit Ryan Wingo will have to step up after star receivers Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell departed for the NFL. The Longhorns will have to identify difference-makers on the defensive line and improve a secondary that ranked 113th in the FBS against the pass, allowing 254.4 yards per game.

No. 2 - Ohio State

Coach Ryan Day's teams have won 86.8% of their games since he took over the Ohio State program at the start of the 2019 season. The Buckeyes have defeated every Big Ten opponent in the regular season the past three years except one -- Michigan. Unfortunately for Day, Ohio State has lost to the Wolverines three straight times, sullying what has otherwise been a remarkable stretch. After Michigan won a CFP national title under former coach Jim Harbaugh last season, the Buckeyes increased their efforts in the transfer portal, landing five-star safety Caleb Downs (Alabama), tailback Quinshon Judkins (Ole Miss) and quarterback Will Howard (Kansas State). Day also turned over the offensive playcalling to his mentor, former UCLA coach Chip Kelly. The Buckeyes get a soft nonconference schedule (home games against Akron, Western Michigan and Marshall) and play the Wolverines at the Horseshoe on Nov. 30.

No. 1 - Georgia

With a schedule that includes a nonconference opener against Clemson in Atlanta and SEC road games at Kentucky, Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss, a fourth straight unbeaten regular season might be asking a bit much of the Bulldogs. But there's a reason coach Kirby Smart's program won back-to-back CFP national titles in 2021 and 2022 and 46 of its past 48 games. Quarterback Carson Beck is primed for a big season, and he'll be surrounded by plenty of playmakers and what should be one of the sport's best offensive lines. Replacements will have to be identified on the interior defensive line and in the secondary, but that hasn't been a problem in the recent past. Mykel Williams, who is going to play more outside linebacker this season, looks ready to break out as a pass-rusher. Georgia is stacked at linebacker and brings back safety Malaki Starks, one of the best players in the FBS.

While I am pleased to see Schlabach reward Ohio State for its incredible offseason — the Buckeyes returned 11 NFL draft prospects and added six valuable transfers — I wonder what it would have taken for Ohio State to secure the No. 1 spot in his post-spring rankings.

If I had to guess, it would be the Buckeyes still having question marks around the quarterback position and the offensive line. I think the Michigan-sized monkey on Ryan Day’s back is also a factor, though I’m not sure it should when ordering teams based on roster talent.

At any rate, it seems Ohio State will start the 2024 season as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the nation next season, and I like the sound of that. If the Buckeyes can perform at that level all year long, it could be a special couple of months when we reach December and January.

 “THE MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE.” After a one-and-done Ohio State career, Mike Conley became the No. 4 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, landing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Seventeen years later — including 12 years with the Grizzlies, two years with the Utah Jazz and three years with the Minnesota Timberwolves — Conley is still kickin’ it in the league.

According to three-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, whose Denver Nuggets fell to Conley’s Timberwolves in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals, Conley is “the most underrated player in the NBA.”

Jokic’s claim came after Minnesota orchestrated the largest Game 7, second-half comeback in NBA playoff history on Sunday. Down 15 points at halftime, the Timberwolves clawed their way back, completing a 32-9 run that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth. During that span, Conley collected three points, three rebounds and one assist. He ended the game with 10 points, eight boards, four helpers and two steals.

“I think they’re built to beat us,” Jokic said of the Timberwolves. “They have basically two All-Stars (Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns), two All-Defensive First Team players (Jaden McDaniels and Rudy Gobert) and Mike Conley, who’s the most underrated player in the NBA probably. I love the guy. He’s so good. He always makes the right play.”

And, yeah, Conley is so good (so good… so good!). With over 1,100 appearances in his 17 seasons, he has averaged 14.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. This season, the 36-year-old averaged 11.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.2 steals per contest. He was also named the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year for the second time in his career, proving Conley adds more than statistical production to the franchise.

Conley and the Timberwolves will host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. The game will mark Conley’s second career WCF appearance following a deep postseason run with the Grizzlies in 2014.

 GOT KOMBUCHA? When Quinn Ewers reclassified to the 2021 class and showed up on Ohio State’s campus in August 2021, he immediately signed an NIL deal with GT Sports Marketing worth $1.4 million. (He then announced an endorsement deal with Holy Kombucha, a Texas-based beverage company, and promoted the brand on his social media).

However, four months after he arrived in Columbus, Ewers entered the transfer portal and committed to Texas, where he has spent the past two seasons as the Longhorns’ QB1. Ewers will return to Texas in 2024.

Given Ewers’ brief tenure in Columbus, I have long wondered: What the heck happens to the NIL deal Ewers inked with GT Sports Marketing and the endorsements he agreed to with Holy Kombucha and other companies? Are those contracts still binding, tossed in the paper shredder, or somewhere in between?

College football writers at The Athletic interviewed 10 CEOs from NIL collectives across America to learn more about the process (as well as other NIL and transfer portal developments) this week. Here’s what the CEOs shared about how their collectives handle contracts:

NIL collective CEO 4: Every school has different contracts. Ours have the verbiage that if you’re no longer commercially beneficial for us to advertise you, and there are reasons why that might be — one of them is being outside of the market — so if a kid transfers it would trigger that clause in his contract and it doesn’t say if you go in the portal.

Who knows how legislation or laws will work out in the next 2-5 years where that may shift, but our contracts are pretty flexible on both ends where they can cancel, we can cancel for marketing benefit.

NIL collective CEO 5: They have to live within 15 miles of campus in order for it to stay valid.

NIL collective CEO 1: We have language in our agreement that the moment a player officially goes in the portal, we have the right to void, terminate or cancel his contract. Because now he’s no longer marketable to me as an ambassador of the collective. Because he’s put out a post saying I’m leaving the (program) to go pursue other opportunities, I can’t market him to our fan base anymore.

NIL collective CEO 3: Each deal lays out at the beginning a monthly structure. Each payment is contingent on the performance of that month’s work. If they’re no longer here working for the charity, it’s voided. We haven’t had an issue with guys leaving and trying to get future payments.

NIL collective CEO 9: It’s voided if you’re no longer enrolled or in good standing on an NCAA team. So we don’t say you have to play here. But the moment you enter the portal and you’re not on a roster, it’s void.

NIL collective CEO 8: The way our contracts are written, we can terminate them at any time, for any reason. If they leave, we terminate it. We don’t have to give a reason. We’ve never had any problems legally or had anyone complain. Some might try to take advantage and transfer the day after a payment gets delivered, but we just try to stay on top of that stuff.

And there you have it.

Or is it, “And there I have it”?

Whatever. I don’t care.

If a player leaves, their former team’s collective voids their contract. It sounds simple, but then again, nothing is simple in the Wild Wild West. Good on these collectives for creating some structure to life in the chaotic world of college athletics.

 FORE! Buckeye Nation, grab your golf clubs and swing for a cause at The 2024 Field House Fairway Fore Hope — a golf outing benefiting The Field House Cancer Foundation — on June 17 at The Ohio State University Golf Scarlet Course.

Not only will the event provide a chance to donate to The Field House Cancer Foundation – which former Ohio State football player Chris Fields created in honor of his late brother, James – but Buckeye fans will have the opportunity to golf with some household names from Ohio State football, including Ryan Day, Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Terry McLaurin, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and more.

As of Monday, the outing is still accepting registrants for threesomes (whose fourth player will be an Ohio State football coach or player) and foursome pairings. Complimentary alcohol, boxed lunches, and buffets will also be included. And on the Eleven Dubcast two weeks ago, Fields told Johnny Ginter and George Eisner about even more perks for playing in the event.

To sign up for the event, click here.

It sounds like one you won’t want to miss.

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