I still don't know if this column will be a weekly feature or not (last week, obviously, it was not), but we are back for the fifth edition of Monday Morning Point Guard. It is patterned after my Sunday Morning Quarterback series. Hopefully, I'll have a quick read on the OSU basketball scene as well as what's happening in the Big Ten and the nation at large.
Without any further adieu, let's get right to it:
* Welcome to March Madness! It is Monday, March 1, and, oh yes, this is truly the most wonderful time of the year (forget about Christmas).
For the next five weeks it is college basketball, college basketball and more college basketball as we'll watch them wrap up the regular season, conduct the conference tournaments and move into NCAA Tournament play beginning March 18. Of course, it all culminates in the national championship game, set for five weeks from tonight on April 5 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
I'm sorry, but I'm like a kid on Christmas morning when I have four NCAA games going at one time on the first two days of the tournament.
* Regarding Ohio State, the won-loss total will not reflect it very well, but the one-game attitude adjustment Jim O'Brien gave to Tony Stockman has paid tremendous dividends -- at least for Stockman.
OSU is 4-5 in the nine games since O'Brien left Stockman home from the team's Jan. 24 road trip to Iowa.
Over that stretch, Stockman has come back to average 36 minutes and 14.9 points per game. He has hit 40.2 percent of his shots from the floor (45 of 112), including a nice 38.2 percent (26 of 68) from behind the three-point arc. He has dished out 21 assists and had 15 turnovers over that nine-game stretch.
Going further inside the numbers, Stockman has played 38 or more minutes in five of OSU's last seven games. In fact, he played all 40 minutes in the three games prior to Sunday's loss to Michigan, when he played 39. And, other than four turnovers in a win over Northwestern, Stockman has valued the rock and given it up no more than twice in any single game over the last nine outings.
O'Brien admitted that Stockman deserves praise for the way he handled such a public reprimand.
"I have been so harsh to him," the coach said. "But I think Tony has made, I think, some tremendous improvement. I really think Tony has made some strides in trying to do some things we have asked him to do. I don't think it's any small coincidence … the game at Indiana, it takes a monstrous effort by the two big guys to win a game where he doesn't shoot well. In the other games we've played well in, Tony has shot the ball well. There is probably unfair pressure put on him to have good shooting nights and to have to score some points. That's kind of the way it is."
* Another guard catching O'Brien's eye of late is Lima (Ohio) Shawnee senior Jamar Butler, who signed with the Buckeyes in November.
On an off-night Friday, O'Brien trekked up to Elida to see Butler score 31 points in a double overtime win.
"The thing that has impressed me is he has improved his three-point shooting," O‘Brien said. "He's physically ready to play at this level. Last night, and I assume this is how he's been playing, he did a great job of getting in the lane and kicking the ball out and finding guys. And he's been making shots. He's had a very good season. I think he has to be in the running for player of the year. He's had just a monstrous season. Last night, he had 31 points and the two games before that I think he had 46 and 53.
"He's shooting with good range. The game was on the line at the end and he went to the line and made eight straight foul shots. Physically he's ready and I think he's going to be a good player. I'm really happy with what he's done."
With the struggles OSU has had with scoring from the backcourt, O'Brien and his staff probably spend more than a little time daydreaming about how Butler's arrival will impact the team next year. He may give OSU a "lead guard" in the Scoonie Penn mold and help set up the team's other key offensive threats, which appear, at least at this point to be, Stockman and Terence Dials.
And I would agree with O'Brien that Butler has to be one of the top two or three candidates for Ohio's Mr. Basketball award.
* If the season ended today, here's how the pairings would look for the Big Ten tournament (set for March 11-14 in Indianapolis):
Opening Round: Indiana (8) vs. Ohio State (9), Purdue (7) vs. Penn State (10), Northwestern (6) vs. Minnesota (11).
Quarterfinals: Michigan State (1) vs. Indiana-OSU winner, Illinois (2) vs. Purdue-PSU winner, Wisconsin (3) vs. NU-Minnesota winner, Iowa (4) vs. Michigan (5).
Obviously, there are one more week's worth of games to play. It is notable that if Illinois wins out and beats Purdue and Ohio State this week, it would supplant MSU as the top seed due to a head-to-head win over the Spartans, should they end up tied. Also, a Michigan-Northwestern match-up this week could have some big implications in breaking up that logjam in the middle at or near .500.
We'll be back a week from now to preview the Big Ten tournament and give our winners.
* In my Jan. 26 edition of the Point Guard, I looked ahead at who would make the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten. I had, at that point, Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue as locks with Michigan State likely. I had Indiana and Michigan as possibilities and Iowa as a real outside shot. I predicted at that point that at least five Big Ten teams would make the field. Of course, the conference minimum in any year since the field went to 64 teams in 1985 is five.
Obviously, a lot has changed. For starters, it seems likely, barring four wins in four days at the Big Ten tournament that the NCAA will stage its so-called Big Dance without Indiana for the first time since 1985. The Hoosiers have lost seven of their last eight to fall to 12-13.
Wisconsin leads the conference in RPI, ranking 23rd. At 19-6, the Badgers are definitely in.
Illinois (20-5, 27th RPI) is also a lock.
But Purdue is definitely looking more and more NIT-like after an 82-46 drubbing at Wisconsin Sunday. That loss left the Boilers at 17-10 overall and 93rd in RPI. Purdue desperately needs wins over Illinois and/or Iowa this week.
I would put Michigan State in the field if it was chosen today. The Spartans have won nine of their last 10 and risen to 17-9 overall and 36th in RPI. They are awful close to the magical No. 34 slot (i.e., the NCAA has never left out a team ranked 34th or higher in RPI).
So we have three locks in Wisconsin, Illinois and MSU. Purdue needs to get it going.
That leaves Michigan (16-9, 53rd RPI) and Iowa (15-10, 72nd RPI) as possibilities. I think Michigan can all but cement its bid with road wins over Indiana and/or Northwestern this week. These two teams' records are just one game apart. The difference is schedule, where UM is ranked 53rd and Iowa is ranked 70th.
Michigan is 2-5 against RPI top-50 teams with wins over N.C. State and Wisconsin. Iowa is just 1-6 against the same group with that lone win coming against Louisville. Iowa also faces road games at Northwestern and Purdue in this final week.
Somehow, I think Purdue, Michigan or Iowa will rise up and grab one NCAA bid. But to expect two of those teams to make it and keep the Big Ten's streak of at least five participants alive may be too much to ask. We'll reexamine one week from today.
* With one week left in the Big Ten regular season, I will supply you with my picks for all the various awards.
I think Wisconsin guard Devin Harris (19.1 points per game) is the Big Ten player of the year (for what he did against Ohio State and, I guess, everybody else). He would be joined on my All-Big Ten first team by Michigan State center Paul Davis, Illinois guard Deron Williams, Indiana guard Bracey Wright and Minnesota power forward Kris Humphries. (Ordinarily, when a freshman like Humphries leads the conference in scoring on the worst team, we would invoke the Michael Redd Rule -- remember when all he got was third-team All-Big Ten as a freshman? But Humphries is also tops in rebounding. That should be worth something.)
My second team would include Iowa's Pierre Pierce, Michigan State's Chris Hill, Illinois' Dee Brown, Purdue's Kenneth Lowe and Northwestern's Jitim Young.
My third team would be Northwestern's Vedran Vukusic, Michigan's Bernard Robinson Jr., Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson, Iowa's Jeff Horner and Illinois' Roger Powell.
Humphries is obviously the freshman of the year. Iowa's Brody Boyd would be the top defensive player (he leads in steals per game). Coach of the year is a toughie. I guess Illinois' Bruce Weber as a first-year guy deserves it if his team wins a share of the title. I think Northwestern's Bill Carmody also deserves a ton of credit if he can squeeze a top-five finish out of that roster.
* Would you believe there are talks at Ohio State regarding a possible men's basketball game at St. John Arena next year?
At the end of an entire season that probably would have been better staged at St. John Arena than in cavernous Value City Arena, the last thing you would expect to hear is the powers that be are considering moving a men's game sometime around Thanksgiving time to SJA. It seems there may be a building conflict at VCA at that point with some type of weeklong booking.
"There is a time on our schedule, the way it works out, that we have a gap there where if we try to play a game at home, the only place we could play would be here," O'Brien said after OSU wrapped its Saturday practice at SJA while the state wrestling tournament was being held at VCA.
"We would rather play over there (at VCA)," the coach added. "That's where we play. If we only come here to play one game, we would lose an advantage."
OSU is booked for a return road game at Texas Tech. O'Brien revealed that OSU will need to go on the road as well as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. He then dropped a bombshell that OSU may schedule the nation's current No. 2-ranked team.
"I don't know of any other (road games)," he said. "We're still working on our schedule for next year. We are trying to get St. Joseph's signed for a home-and-home. There is a good chance that will happen. We will play them at home in the first game. We are hoping we can get that done."
Ohio State This Week
* The Buckeyes (13-14, 5-9) host Penn State (9-16, 3-11) at 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN-Plus). PSU rolled to an easy 64-47 win over the Buckeyes on Jan. 10 in State College. Penn State actually broke open a close game at halftime (27-26, PSU) with a 14-2 run to start the second half. Freshman guard Marlon Smith had 23 points and Jan Jagla and Aaron Johnson added 12 each for the Lions. Velimir Radinovic was the only Buckeye in double figures with 16. The loss snapped a three-game win streak for OSU over the Lions as well as a three-game win streak in State College.
* OSU then wraps up the regular season with a game against Illinois (20-5, 11-3) at 4 p.m. Sunday on CBS. The Illinois crushed OSU 85-63 on Jan. 7 in Champaign. Reserve 7-footer Nick Smith was perfect on six shots from the floor and nine at the foul line and had 22 points and nine rebounds to lead the Illini, who grabbed a 39-22 halftime lead. Dee Brown had 16 points and six assists, while Roger Powell had 11 points. OSU, which went nearly eight minutes without a field goal in the game, got 11 points from Dials and 10 from Stockman.
Big Ten Notable Games This Week
* Wisconsin at Michigan State, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- The Spartans can wrap up no worse than a piece of the Big Ten championship with a win over the Badgers. But a UW win would keep the Badgers in position to win a third straight conference title, provided it can follow up with a win at Indiana and either Purdue or Ohio State can knock off Illinois. UW won 77-64 on Jan. 10 in Madison.
* Michigan at Indiana, Wednesday, 6 p.m. -- The Wolverines can probably punch their NCAA dance card for the first time since 1998 with a win here or Saturday against Northwestern.
* Illinois at Purdue, Wednesday, 8 p.m. -- As noted, Illinois needs a win here so it can play for at least a piece of the Big Ten crown against OSU. Purdue eked out a 58-54 win Jan. 10 in Champaign as teacher (Gene Keady) downed former pupil (Bruce Weber).
* Iowa at Purdue, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN-Plus) -- The winner would probably have a good case for an NCAA berth, since both are on the bubble right now.
National Games To Watch This Week
So many games from coast to coast have conference title implications and at least two teams go into the last week of the regular season in search of perfect records.
* Texas at Oklahoma State, Monday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) -- These two teams are tied for the Big 12 lead at 12-2 in conference play, so the winner will clinch a tie for the regular season title and gain the top seed in the conference tournament. OSU won 72-67 on Jan. 24 in Austin.
* Pittsburgh at Providence, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. -- No national TV for one of the biggest games in the Big East season. The winner should get a piece of the conference regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament.
* St. Bonaventure at St. Joseph's, Tuesday, 8 p.m. -- There should be no suspense as to whether St. Joe's will end up the regular season 27-0 on senior night. The question will be the final margin after the Hawks routed the depleted Bonnies 114-63 the first time around.
* Georgia Tech at Duke, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) -- Duke won the first meeting 82-74 on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.
* Cincinnati at DePaul, Thursday, 9 p.m. (ESPN2) -- DePaul claimed Louisville last week. Could UC be next?
* N.C. State at Wake Forest, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (CBS) -- If Duke slips up, the Wolfpack could be in position to claim a piece of the ACC title with a win here.
* Memphis at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m. (ABC) -- The Bearcats could wrap up another Conference USA crown and top seed in the conference tournament, set for downtown Cincinnati at U.S. Bank Arena.
* Stanford at Washington, Saturday, 6 p.m. -- If the Cardinal gets by Washington State Thursday night, this one would be for a perfect 27-0 regular season.
* North Carolina at Duke, Saturday, 9 p.m. -- This great rivalry could decide whether the Dookies win the ACC. Duke escaped the Dean Dome with an 83-81 win on Feb. 5.
* Florida at Kentucky, Sunday, noon (CBS) -- Always entertaining when these two hook up, although Mississippi State, with a final week win over Auburn or Alabama, will have the SEC crown already wrapped up.
* Connecticut at Syracuse, Sunday, 2 p.m. (CBS) -- The Huskies could get a share of the Big East title with a win here, while SU would cement an NCAA bid -- and a chance to defend its national title -- with a win here.
My National Top 16
My list: Stanford, St. Joseph's, Duke, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, UConn, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Texas, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Providence, Wisconsin, Louisville, North Carolina, Illinois.
If I get ambitious next week, I may project conference tourney winners and NCAA field of 65. No promises, though.