The (basketball) state of the Buckeye State
COLUMBUS -- Sizing up the "state" of college basketball...
1. Ohio State has been so good for most of the season that there seems to be a gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the nation. But what about the rest of the state? It's a big basketball year across Ohio as three teams -- OSU, Wooster (NCAA Div. III) and Walsh (NAIA Div. II) are all unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in their respective national rankings. Cleveland is hosting two rounds of the NCAA Tournament (and, presumably, Ohio State), Dayton is hosting the first-ever First Four when the tournament starts, Cleveland State is knocking on the tournament's door and Cincinnati got off to a hot start and caught some attention. Xavier is probably a tournament team, and Cleveland State might be as it prepares for its biggest weekend in years. Lots of good basketball, lots of good teams. Let's explore.
2. On Saturday, Cleveland State hosts Butler (remember them?) in a nationally-televised game that both teams need badly. The first meeting in Indianapolis didn't go so well for the Vikings -- it went so badly, in fact, that cSU then no-showed its game at Valparaiso two days later and got beat up. It's Redemption Weekend as CSU still has just three losses (at West Virginia and those two) and has extra incentive because the Horizon League regular-season champion hosts the conference tournament semifinals and finals. CSU has to believe its only path to making the Big Dance is to win the conference tourney, so holding serve at home -- and serving notice in the process this weekend -- is crucial. TOURNEY OUTLOOK: The Vikings have a chance as an at-large, mostly because it's a down year for college basketball as a whole. But even one loss this weekend would diminish that chance greatly, and CSU would probably still need to make it all the way to the conference final before losing to keep that chance alive. It's going to be very tough to win at Old Dominion in the Bracket Buster in two weeks, so the season, basically, is tonight and Saturday. Here's hoping a nice crowd comes out to see a team that plays a pretty fun brand of basketball.
3. The UC Bearcats got fat (16-0 to start) on an early schedule that included the likes of Florida A&M, Utah Valley and Toledo. But for as nice as it would have been to beat West Virginia at home (and not just for the Bob Huggins Factor) last weekend, they still have zero bad losses and a good number of chances for that signature win still ahead. Saturday night's game at Pittsburgh is certainly one of those -- and might top the list -- and though it won't be easy, Pitt's offense doesn't exactly resemble that of the old UNLV teams. Or even the current Duke team. UC still has Louisville, two games with Georgetown and a visit from suddenly-wobbly UConn on the slate. TOURNEY OUTLOOK: Right now, UC looks like an 8-10 seed, maybe even an 8 or 9 in Cleveland playing in Cleveland for the right to play Ohio State. But with the demanding remaining schedule and a mini-NCAA Tournament at the Big East Tournament, the book is very much open on the Bearcats. A hot streak and they could play themselves into the top 25 and up to a 6 seed. A cold streak could land them as far as the cold side of the bubble.
4. Xavier's loss at Charlotte Wednesday night certainly wasn't part of any plan, especially coming off a dominating road win over a pretty good Richmond team that was Xavier's seventh-straight win. That's life on the road, but the results against most of the quality opponents make it clear this XU team doesn't have the offensive firepower of teams of the past few years. Two really big road games await next week: at Georgia in a made-for-TV and made-for-the-tournament-committee non-conference game, then at Duquesne, which is unbeaten in the A-10. Considering Duquesne's sudden rise from doormat to contender, it's fine to take a wait-and-see approach. But that game is big for both teams' tourney hopes. TOURNEY OUTLOOK: The resume lacks quality wins, but Xavier should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 wins by Selection Sunday and should get in. Wins at Georgia and Duquesne would go a long way towards helping XU both get there and get a potential single-digit seed, so we'll take the wait-and-see approach.
5. UC has some horses; I hope Yancy Gates stays another year to add some polish. UC has been a little offensively-challenged as the schedule has toughened. The good news about the Big East is that the Bearcats have plenty of chances for quality wins, don't need as many as other teams do to get to the Big Dance and, presumably, should be tournament-tested assuming they do. Point guard Tu Holloway of Xavier has been electric the times I've seen him and big man Kenny Frease has improved; the X-Men will need all hands on deck next week. Cleveland State's Norris Cole is a lightning-fast point guard who's going to be drafted by the NBA this June. Exactly when and where he'll be drafted mgiht depend on how he plays over the next six weeks. Dayton has been disappointing, and the MAC is a one-bid league for sure. As of now I'd pick Kent State to win that bid (Justin Greene is a future NBA player, too), but crazy things happen in that league. That's why we love March. That's why we'll be watching.
Tonight's prediction: Ohio State 68, Michigan 51. Be back after the game.