The race really begins when the finish line comes into view.
Six weeks remain in the college basketball season and for teams to reach that finish line, each week requires two and only two things:
1. Maximum effort
Ohio State has been running this race longer than most, perhaps even at a greater and more strenuous pace than other teams. It's the nature of both how they play, but also who they are playing. Depending upon your outlook in life, that's either a strength or a concern.
For the Buckeyes, it's absolutely both.
Win the Last No. 1 Seed
You can break Ohio State's race into three parts. The first is the race to the fourth and final one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan defeating the Bucks probably locked up their demands of a No. 1 seed - we know Baylor and Gonzaga are set - so that leaves one left and it's Ohio State's to win.
Depending upon where you look and read, anywhere from three to four teams are in this race to the final top seed: Illinois, Alabama, Villanova are probably the three that seem to be consensus. That fourth team could be anyone from Houston (18-3) to Florida State (13-3) to even USC (19-4). The two seeds are far from clear at the moment and that absolutely plays to Ohio State's advantage in the bracketology.
Tom Izzo is absolutely not used to being in the position of playing seed-spoiler to teams, but that's exactly where Sparty is at this year. A crazy upset win over Ohio State puts those one seed claims into more doubt. They also play Illinois and could dramatically impact where the Illini end up. The Buckeyes' game against Michigan State is far from a foregone conclusion and absolutely requires them to keep that pedal on the floor.
Race to Recover
The second part of the race is a mad dash towards recovery. Head coach Chris Holtmann said it himself a few weeks ago when he remarked that his team was a little banged up.
"We need a really good day in the training room," he said back on February 18, right after Ohio State beat a plucky team from Penn State.
Every team in the country is worn down right now, but the eye test shows that Ohio State is potentially feeling the wear and tear more than most. Some slower paced games would help them - blowouts would be manna from heaven - but the burden falls mostly on the training staff. This is the war within the war and what Ohio State does during the downtime will invariably impact what they do on the floor perhaps more than anything else.
The last part of the race is an all-out sprint to meeting and possibly exceeding expectations. This is where subjectivity and nuance enter the discussion. It's fair to levy national championship expectations on teams that land a one seed because it represents both consistent success in the months prior and the easiest path to hanging a banner. Any fan of the tourney knows however that it's not always that cut and dry.
Ohio State has earned four No. 1 seeds in program history, the last of which happened back in 2011. That 2011 team was the top overall seed in the tournament and smashed both their opponents to get a Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky. That game left every basketball fan wondering if karma actually exists as it ended the Buckeyes' run toward a title.
Ohio State's overall record as a one seed is 12-4. In those four tournaments, there's been one loss in the national championship, one regional final defeat and two Sweet 16 crash outs. It's up to the reader to decide whether that's good on a personal level. Historically however, one seeds win national titles - 22 of the last 35 in fact. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, one seeds have almost doubled the number of titles won by all the other seeds combined (13).
With all the historical stats on the table, it may feel like Chris Holtmann and company have their work cut out for them over the next six weeks. But that's also what makes this race the best to run. Almost every factor is within their influence and control. That path is there and the goal is in view.
The sprint always continues.
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