All eyes on Ohio State vs. Michigan showdown
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
THE OPENING TIP
The game of the year in college basketball is set to take place Sunday, when Michigan travels to Columbus to play Ohio State. I’m not just saying that because I’m an Ohio State alum still trying to process the emptiness I’ve felt since the football game between these two schools was canceled for the first time in more than 100 years. Granted, there have been a handful of other high-profile games this season such as Baylor vs. Illinois or Gonzaga vs. Iowa. You could argue both of those games had more individual talent on display and featured a "better" combination of teams. But no game this season has had more at stake to this point than Sunday’s top-five matchup.
The most obvious thing on the line is the inside path to a regular-season Big Ten title, as both Ohio State and Michigan are joined by Illinois atop the conference standings. But that’s not quite as important right now because a trophy won’t be handed out Sunday, regardless of what happens. Also, it remains to be seen how the conference is going to handle crowning a champion in the face of scheduling imbalances caused by COVID-19.
The more pressing matter is the battle for the remaining No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, the selection committee released its top 16 teams to this point, and joining Gonzaga and Baylor as No. 1 seeds were both Michigan and Ohio State, with Illinois close behind as the committee’s top No. 2 seed. The last thing any team with Final Four aspirations wants is to look up on Selection Sunday and find themselves slated in the same region as Gonzaga or Baylor. And the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is for a team to secure one of the remaining two No. 1 seeds, which makes these next few weeks in the Big Ten crucial.
In fact, not only will the odd man out between Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois have a greater chance of playing Gonzaga or Baylor before the Final Four, but also it’s all but guaranteed that whichever of those three schools doesn't secure a No. 1 seed will end up in Gonzaga's or Baylor’s region. That’s because even though the NCAA is using a true S-curve to build the bracket this year, teams from the same conference still cannot be in the same region if they receive a No. 4 seed or better. Thus, the writing is on the wall. With less than four weeks until Selection Sunday, three Big Ten teams are left to play musical chairs with the last two No. 1 seeds, and whoever is on the outside looking in will have to deal with being thrown on the same path to the Final Four as one of the undefeated juggernauts.
The only way this could change is if one of the No. 1 seeds ends up going to a non-Big Ten team. This is theoretically possible in the sense that Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois all have multiple games that they could easily lose left on their respective schedules. But the problem is that strong candidates to supplant the Big Ten on the No. 1 line are few and far between – Villanova has gotten smacked twice this month alone, Houston has losses to Tulsa and East Carolina on its résumé, and Virginia was just dominated by Florida State, which could win the ACC but wasn't even in the committee’s top 16 on Saturday. In truth, the two teams with the best chance of breaking up the Big Ten’s No. 1-seed party are Alabama (which has a light schedule the rest of the regular season) and Oklahoma (which might have to win out and make the Big 12 Tournament title game to have a chance).
There’s still plenty of time for all sorts of scenarios to shake out, but as it stands now, it seems that whoever wins Sunday in Columbus will inch closer to being a No. 1-seed lock, while the loser of that game will be left to fight Illinois for its No. 1-seed life. That is why it figures to be college basketball’s game of the year.
… until Illinois plays at Ohio State on March 6, of course, at which point that will be the game of the year.
… unless the Illinois vs. Michigan game that was supposed to happen last week gets rescheduled, at which point that will be the game of the year.
... unless some combination of these teams meet in the Big Ten Tournament, at which — you get the idea.
Huge couple of weeks coming up in the Big Ten. Enjoy!
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
As of this week, here are the three biggest threats facing the sanctity of college basketball as we know it.
1. Player empowerment
Duke freshman Jalen Johnson announced Monday that he was "opting out" of the remainder of the season to prepare for the NBA Draft. I have yet to see a single person argue that Johnson should not have the right to do whatever he thinks is best for himself and his future, and I agree with that. However, I don’t think leaving your teammates high and dry with three weeks left in the season as your team is fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, then invoking "The Brotherhood" in your statement as to why you quit, is a move that should be applauded or normalized.
But there is one thing about Johnson’s decision that I do love: We are now one step closer to seeing my high-school-to-college-to-NBA dream play out. OK, here we go.
A kid in eighth grade gets billed as the best player in the country and then decides to not play high school basketball to "avoid injury" and maintain his status as the nation’s best player. Plenty of people would support the decision, obviously, because he isn't getting paid to play high school basketball, and ultimately the kid is "doing what’s best for himself." Then he gets to college and decides to sit out to again to avoid injury and/or preserve his draft stock, and the nerds online rejoice at the idea of him sticking it to the system.
Once he gets drafted into the NBA, he says he "doesn’t want to rush back" because he hasn’t played organized basketball in so long, so he takes his whole rookie year off. Then during warm-ups in a preseason game the following year, he says "something doesn’t feel right" and asks to sit out some more "out of an abundance of caution." In the end, he decides that it’s best to just wait until his rookie contract is up because a serious injury would jeopardize his chances at a max contract. Then, once he signs the max contract, he demands a trade to Los Angeles and says he won’t play until his demands are met.
The franchise that drafted him gives in and honors the request, he gets traded to L.A., and within the first five minutes of real basketball he has played in almost a decade, he blows out his knee. In the postgame media conference, he says that he will "play out" his contract. But all that really means is that he’ll collect checks as he rehabs and lives it up in Southern California, and then he'll retire with $100 million in the bank despite having not made a single shot in an organized game of basketball since puberty.
2. Rick Pitino
If you’re like me and thought the pandemic would keep the college basketball coaching carousel from spinning this spring, it might be time to think again. On Monday, Boston College fired head coach Jim Christian after almost seven seasons with the program. The fact that this happened isn’t exactly a surprise, but the timing is certainly something. Firing Christian in mid-February with four games left on the schedule tells me that Boston College is trying to get a head start on the coaching search, maybe because the likes of Penn State (which has been with an interim coach all season after Pat Chambers resigned in October), Wichita State (which has been with an interim coach all season after Gregg Marshall resigned in November) and Portland (which fired Terry Porter on Feb. 5) are trying to do the same.
It feels inevitable that more coaches will lose their jobs after they fail to take their teams as far in March Madness as their school’s administration would have liked. What does that ultimately mean? It means it’s time to buckle up for an offseason full of coaching searches at a time when college basketball’s most famous pariah is trying to scheme his way back to the mountaintop.
The pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, and just this past week, we were given another reminder that this includes one of the most storied programs in college basketball. After having multiple home games canceled due to COVID-19 this season, North Carolina was forced to sink to depths that under normal circumstances could be seen as nothing but a cry for help from a program of its magnitude.
That’s right, folks: The world-famous North Carolina Tar Heels took to Twitter to try to find a team to come to the Dean Dome to play them (which ended up being Northeastern, by the way).
I’ll say what nobody else is brave enough to say ... Living in weird times is distorting my sense of reality, and I, for one, am ready for this pandemic to be over.
Shoutout to Longwood junior DeShaun Wade, who hit a half-court game-winner to beat Gardner-Webb on Thursday … with seven seconds left on the clock.
Wait … what?
Just like Coach drew it up.
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
On Tuesday’s show, Tate and I made our Good Guy and Bag Guy of the Week picks (as we do every Tuesday) before we got into a deep discussion about what makes this year’s Florida State team so unique and why it's a solid pick come March. We also talked about Virginia’s winning streak over North Carolina, Jim Christian, Ohio State’s dominant win over Indiana and a ton of other things.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!