This feature 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:
* Before I get into my thoughts on the NCAA Tournament and the conference tournaments, I'd like to share a word on some players who should be around the next time Ohio State makes it to The Big Dance.
Following OSU's Big Ten tournament loss, I caught a word with assistant coach LaMonta Stone. We discussed OSU's three signees for this year -- point guard Jamar Butler and forwards Matt Terwilliger and Jermyl Jackson-Wilson.
Here is what Stone had to say about each of these players:
On Jackson-Wilson -- "That is exactly what we need. He is a strong kid. He's a kid who's 6-7. He already has a Big Ten body coming in and he's very athletic. He's what we don't have right now, a kid that can play the four position that's very athletic and very strong and very difficult for the majority of the Big Ten forwards."
On Terwilliger -- "Matt Terwilliger had a heck of a senior year. We can't wait to get him here. He's really worked on his game this season. He's inside-outside. We can't wait to get him in a Buckeye uniform."
On Butler -- "Jamar Butler is the same type of guard as Scoonie (Penn) and Brent (Darby) were. He's in that mold. He'll control this team from day one."
I know it is a long time until these three -- and maybe, just maybe, a certain high school senior from Detroit -- are in uniform for the Buckeyes. But there is always that hope that OSU can make a big turnaround and have their ticket punched for the dance 12 months from now.
* I will share my final national top 16 and my NCAA Tournament picks below. Now I will share my initial thoughts on the release of the brackets.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the mistreatment of Big Ten tournament champion Wisconsin. The Badgers took the floor Sunday for the finals of the conference tournament as the nation's No. 10-ranked team. They played No. 12 Illinois, one day after beating Michigan State in the semis.
Wisconsin ran Illinois off the floor for the second time this year. You would think, based on their ranking, their RPI (12th after the win) and record (24-6) that the Badgers would get a three seed maybe a four in the NCAA Tournament.
But, instead, the committee saddled Wisconsin with a six seed. Where is the justice in this? For the second time in three years, Big Ten fans have to be scratching their heads. Two years ago, Ohio State won the Big Ten tourney and was 23-7 and primed to get a three seed maybe. But the committee gave OSU a four and sent the Buckeyes cross-country for a Thursday game at Albuquerque.
Even worse for Wisconsin is the fact they are in a "pod" with undervalued three seed Pittsburgh, which I admitted this morning would almost be the fifth two seed. Those two teams could have a great second-round game.
The Big Ten has bargained with CBS to get the best position for its championship game on television, just before the pairings are announced. But the tradeoff for that is the fact it appears the committee wraps up its work early so the network can have the pairings typed in and ready to go. If you aren't going to wait until the end of the season to announce the pairings, then why bother doing them?
Pitt must also be fuming. Not only do they drop to a three after a three-point loss to UConn in the Big East tourney finals, but they have to play that pod -- and possibly Wisconsin -- in, get this, Milwaukee.
Before I go on with my feelings on the pairings, let me say this about the NCAA. They have taken what was a fairly simple event to follow and made it almost too complicated. The "pod" pairing system may keep teams like Gonzaga, which will play "St. Louis" or Midwest Region game in Washington, closer to home. But it is a confusing mess to follow. And why, pray tell, after 70 years of calling regions by directions -- East, West, Midwest and South -- have they now taken to calling them by the location of the regional tournament -- this year that would be East Rutherford, Phoenix, St. Louis and Atlanta, respectively?
Oh well, back to the pairings.
I agree with all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. In fact, I had them pegged this morning on the Hoops Forum -- except for UConn in the East, Oklahoma State in the Midwest and Gonzaga in the West.
I think the committee went a bit overboard with its affinity for the ACC. Five teams in the top 16, including Maryland? Yes, the Terrapins made a great run through the ACC tournament. At the end of the tournament, Maryland had a 19-11 record and an RPI of 18. Compare that, again, with Wisconsin, which is now 24-6 with an RPI of 12. And yet Maryland gets a four seed and Wisconsin gets a six. It doesn't compute.
You can't do this the way they're doing it, rewarding one team for winning a conference tournament and not rewarding another. For goodness sake, Wisconsin has been an NCAA lock since Jan. 15. Maryland just played its way back into the field last week … and now they're a four? Nope, I don't buy that.
Those of you headed to Nationwide Arena for first- and second-round action this weekend are really in for some great, great action. I think the people from Kentucky are taking the week off and are already passing Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and on their way up I-71 to Columbus. Their two games -- against the play-in team and either Washington or UAB -- will be like glorified home games.
It is neat in the other "pod" that you could see a potential second-round match-up between Illinois and Cincinnati. I felt those teams would each get a seed one notch higher than they did (Illinois is a five and could have been a four, while UC is a four and maybe could have been a three). But this gives the fans in Columbus a must-see second-round game. Those two schools should also be strongly represented at Nationwide. The ticket scalpers and brokers, I‘m sure, are just counting the hours until they make their killing.
I think the St. Louis Region, with Kentucky as the No. 1, may be the weakest of the four regions. By RPI, there are just four of the top 20 and seven of the top 30. It is possible that UK could meet fourth-seeded Kansas in a blue-blooded Sweet 16 match-up. There are two great potential match-ups in the bottom half of that bracket. In the second round, No. 2 seed Gonzaga could face seventh-seeded Michigan State. Then, the winner of that game could be up against No. 3 seed Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16.
The East Rutherford Region, led by top seed St. Joseph's, is strong at the top with six of the top 20 in RPI, more than any other region. But it still only has nine of the top 40. You want some intrigue? How about Bob Knight and Texas Tech against St. Joe's in a possible 1-8 second rounder? On the bottom half, we've already discussed the possible Pitt-Wisconsin second-round game. Then, the winner may meet up with No. 2 seed Oklahoma State at the Sweet 16.
The Atlanta Region, topped by Duke, has five of the RPI top 20 and nine of the top 40. CBS must be frothing at the mouth over the second-round match-up there, where Duke would meet the Seton Hall-Arizona winner. As noted, Illinois-Cincinnati is also a must-see potential second-round game. Down at the bottom, No. 2 seed Mississippi State and No. 3 Texas could be on a collision course. I also think the 7-10 first rounder between Xavier and Louisville could be neat. But it is possible that sixth-seeded North Carolina could get hot and, believe it or not, meet up with Duke in the regional final. (That would be shades of the OSU-Michigan 1-6 regional final in 1992, huh?) Now, that would be must-see TV, Roy against Coach K with a Final Four berth on the line.
Finally, the Phoenix Region, led by top-seeded Stanford, has five of the RPI top 20. But it may be the deepest of the four regions with 11 of the RPI top 40. The last two champions, No. 4 seed Maryland and No. 5 Syracuse, could meet in the second round and the survivor would then be on track to face Stanford at the Sweet 16. No. 2 seed UConn is clearly the class of the bottom half of the bracket. Third-seeded N.C. State, while dangerous, is the weakest of all the three seeds at 17th in RPI.
* Once again, we enjoyed our stay Indianapolis, however brief, for the Big Ten tournament. I saw more Big Ten fans away from the arena in two days than I have in five previous tourneys in Chicago combined.
I made my picks on that event last week, and, obviously, did not distinguish myself. I missed the championship game (rout) by the Badgers, but they tell me it was defense and Devin Harris' 29 points that did in Illinois.
Hey, the Illini had won 12 straight. They were due for a letdown. It was good to get it out of the way in Indy and focus on making a nice run in the NCAA. If they‘re on, they could give Cincinnati, Duke and many others some fits.
Again, you can't give Wisconsin enough credit. Yes, they got a breather in the quarters with Minnesota. But they beat Michigan State for a third time (never easy to do) in the semis, then thumped Illinois for the second time in the finals.
Michigan State thumped dangerous Northwestern in the quarters, punching their NCAA ticket, although the Spartans have to schlepp to Seattle to face Nevada in their opener and possibly Gonzaga in the second round. MSU will go down with a new record, entering as an at-large team with an 0-8 record against RPI top 25 teams. Nobody has ever had that bad of a record against RPI top 25 teams and made it as an at-large. (Others who did not distinguish themselves this year were Kansas and Florida. The Jayhawks were 0-6 against RPI top 25 teams and Florida was 0-4. The best in that category were Duke at 9-4 and Kentucky at 5-1.)
Back in the Big Ten, poor Michigan. They gutted out a nice win over Iowa in the quarters, then ran into the Illinois buzz saw in the semis, lost and finished at 18-11 and No. 55 in RPI (eight teams ranked higher than Michigan also failed to get in, led by LSU at No. 38). The Wolverines were probably one win from making the NCAA field. The four games that will haunt UM include a home loss to Boston University, two defeats to Indiana and a road loss at lowly Minnesota. The UM NCAA drought is now six years and counting.
OSU fans will likely be split on Michigan's NIT opener with Missouri (16-13), set for Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Who do you root for there? Wow, they make those hard sometimes, don't they?
Also in the Big Ten, Iowa (16-12) opens the NIT at St. Louis (18-12) at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2. Iowa has now been to one NCAA Tournament in five years under Steve Alford.
The Iowa-St. Louis winner will play the winner of Purdue (17-13) and Notre Dame (16-12), set for 7 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2. That game, set for West Lafayette, will be the first between those two Indiana schools since 1966. Purdue was cruising along at 14-4 after an overtime win over Michigan State on Jan. 25. But they blew their almost certain NCAA bid with a 3-9 finish, topped by an unthinkable Big Ten tourney loss to Minnesota.
* I would be remiss if I did not note that the Big Ten's three NCAA entrants is the fewest since the tourney field expanded to 64 in 1985. In fact, the conference had never had fewer than five participants at any point in that stretch. This is also Indiana's first missed NCAA -- and postseason altogether with no NIT, either -- since 1984. (Arizona‘s string now continues at a nation‘s best of 20 straight years.)
It is also interesting to note that the NCAA's 34 at-large berths have shrunk for the major conferences from 27 two years ago to 24 last year to just 22 this year. The Big Ten and Pac-10, in particular, fell on hard times with just three berths each this year. Conference USA, enjoying its greatest success to date after Marquette's Final Four run, sent six teams to this year's field … and none of them were Marquette.
* I have one more note on Ohio State men's basketball before we put away the jerseys, albeit much too prematurely.
In 100 years, they will look back at OSU's year-by-year record and see Ohio State was 14-16 in 2003-04. They probably won't even take note of it, especially if OSU can get back on the beam and reel off 20-win seasons and return to the NCAA in the years to come.
But make no mistake, this was in no way a season to remember. In the final analysis, this OSU team could not score the ball with any kind of consistency and failed miserably when it came time to stop an opponent from doing likewise.
OSU lost to and struggled against teams it used to toy with. That group includes San Francisco, San Diego State, Furman and Penn State. It also looks bad that OSU was a combined 1-5 against three Big Ten teams that failed to make the NCAA (Indiana, Iowa and Michigan).
The Buckeyes made stars out of players with little or no pedigree. To wit: Two San Diego State guys got into the 20s, six Illinois players reached double figures (led by stick figure Nick Smith's 22) in one game and, for the year, 16 opposing players scored in the 20s.
OSU coach Jim O'Brien, who I expect to return next season, does have a nucleus of nine returning players to build on. He has to bank on the fact that shooting guard Tony Stockman and forward/center Terence Dials ended the year on such a high note over the last 10 or 12 games. They could develop among the top four or five in the Big Ten at their respective positions by this time a year from now.
Dials will be a fourth-year junior. Speaking after the Big Ten tourney loss, he seemed to understand the need to become a team leader.
"We just need to get the mentality of being hard-nosed and to play defense," Dials said. "That's been our problem the whole season. It was our defensive intensity or the lack thereof. We didn't have any all season. We were just too lackadaisical. We had the mentality of trying to outscore people instead of trying to stop them."
After Stockman was held out of a road game by O'Brien, he responded by upping his production and cutting his turnovers down the stretch. He, too, could be a building block as he becomes a senior next year.
"After that, Coach and I started to see more eye to eye," Stockman admitted. "I understood more of what he wanted and doing more of the things he wanted me to do. That made me play better. There are a lot of things I have to work on, like toughness and playing hard and playing good defense. But that's the same of our whole team. That's what we need to improve on for next year."
O'Brien decried his team's lack of leadership, even saying he'd love to have a guy like Indiana's A.J. Moye on his team.
"You know he is an emotional, fiery leader and he is giving everything he has all of the time he is out there," O‘Brien said. "You'd love to have a guy like that. We've been trying to develop and get that out of some of them, but we haven't been successful in doing that."
In 1998-99, O'Brien proved you can take a team from pretty bad to pretty good pretty quick if you can just get improved guard play (i.e., Penn). Perhaps Butler will be the same kind of answer, although he would have two fewer years of playing experience than Penn did.
I have not studied each Big Ten roster to see who will have what back next year (I promise to that soon and report back). I do know the teams that led the Big Ten this year -- Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- are all young and could return mostly intact. Certainly, after those three, the Big Ten should be wide open.
But I think OSU fans should prepare themselves for the very real possibility it could be the following year, 2005-06, before OSU contends for the Big Ten and makes a prolonged NCAA run once again.
My Final National Top 16
My list: Stanford, Kentucky, Duke, St. Joseph‘s, Oklahoma State, UConn, Gonzaga, Pittsburgh, Mississippi State, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, Georgia Tech, N.C. State.
My NCAA Picks
I will now pick my Final Four (when the regionals are over, I will make my Final Four picks known).
East (East Rutherford) -- I think somebody will exploit St. Joseph‘s lack of an inside presence. I‘m not sure anybody in the country is playing better than Oklahoma State (9-1 last 10) right now. I like Eddie Sutton‘s Cowboys to win the region, surviving a possible Sweet 16 war with Pitt and then turning back Wake Forest in the final.
Midwest (St. Louis) --Kentucky seems to be an obvious pick here. They are the top seed in what I firmly believe is the weakest region. I just don't see Kansas, Providence or anybody up top stopping them from getting to the finals. I would give Georgia Tech's veteran team a chance to knock UK off in the finals. But, for now, I'll take the red hot Wildcats (12-1 since Feb. 1) over the Yellow Jackets in the final.
South (Atlanta) -- Duke, just 6-4 in the last 10, has shown some real vulnerability down the stretch. I don't think this is Coach K's year to get his fourth NCAA ring. The question then becomes who wins this region? I'm going with Mississippi State over Illinois in the final.
West (Phoenix) -- To me, Stanford has a clean shot to the Sweet 16. Of course, nothing ever seems to come easy for Mike Montgomery‘s team in the NCAA. I‘m sorry, but if Emeka Okafor is right and they can get Charlie Villanueva back, this one is UConn's, likely over the hard-luck Cardinal.
In closing, let me reiterate that this is the most wonderful time of the year. I want to watch every minute of every game, including that "bastard" 4:30 p.m. West Coast game on one of the first two days (you know, the one they never show in Columbus so they can show the news instead).
Let the Madness begin!