Late February has a very distinct feel to it for college basketball fans. It's the time where dreams are born – either to flourish or flounder weeks later.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has to be feeling some of that very same anxiety. His team, 17-9, is teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
With home games against Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State remaining, as well as landmine away contests against Minnesota and Indiana, the Buckeyes have potentially set themselves up for a feast or famine scenario. Ohio State can ride off into the sunset winning four or five of their remaining regular season games, and experience a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Matta or worse yet, they collapse under the pressure of facing the top five teams in the Big Ten standings along with them.
It's a dicey proposition.
Schedule strength has hardly been a problem for the Buckeyes (No. 46 RPI, No. 11 SOS), but those numbers figure to climb even more in the coming weeks. Still, Ohio State is desperately clinging to a couple of so-so "profile" victories and in the absence of some resume-building wins the Buckeyes might feel some heartbreak on selection Sunday.
The numbers are certainly stacked against Ohio State. One-and-seven (1-7) against the RPI top 50; four top-100 victories and worse yet, losses to No. 154 Michigan and No. 167 Iowa.
But here's the good news: Ohio State will be matched-up against some equally mediocre profiles.
The fact lost upon nervous fans, who sit helpless waiting on 10 athletics directors and conference commissioners to decide the fate of their favorite teams, is that the selection process is all relative. There's no magic RPI, no need-to-obtain threshold for being granted one of the 34 at-large spots. Instead, it's all about being one of the subjective top 34 teams that do not win their conference automatic bid.
That these 10 individuals, Ohio State Director of Athletics Gene Smith included again this season, decide whether the dreams are captured or crushed seems like an unfair testament to the system. As these committee members, made up of six Bowl Subdivision representatives and four Championship Subdivision representatives, ponder teams fates while taking the occasional break for an ice cream sundae, anxious onlookers will debate numbers like how teams are faring in their last 12 games, strength of the teams' conferences and who played the toughest schedules.
The selection committee members serve 5-year terms. In addition to the 6-4 ratio of major conferences to smaller conferences, at least two representatives are selected from each of the four geographical regions – East, South, Midwest and West. The 31 conferences are tied to a specific region – which also determines NCAA Tournament regional sites based on what team (or conference) is hosting.
Of the four regions, the Midwest and West comprise the fewest conferences. Each region has just six representative conferences, whereas the South has nine and the East has 10.
Each season, the committee adjourns once in early February for orientation. They go over scheduling and take a sneak peek into the issues that lie ahead. All 10 members are responsible for attending games, watching them on television and keeping track of results and injuries throughout the season, but when the 10 arrive in an Indianapolis hotel room the Thursday before Selection Sunday, it's time for them to get down to business.
This year, the committee roster includes Smith, UCLA AD Dan Guerrero, Utah AD Chris Hill, UC Riverside AD Stanley Morrison, Kent State AD Laing Kennedy, Horizon League Commissioner Jonathan Le Crone, Texas-San Antonio AD Lynn Hickey, SEC Commissioner (and this year's committee chairman) Mike Slive, Connecticut AD Jeff Hathaway and George Mason AD Tom O'Connor.
For those hoping Smith's presence will help the Buckeyes, rules are in place to prohibit representatives from speaking about the teams they represent throughout the process, and they are equally prohibited from voting in steps that include said teams. That said, though rules clearly eliminate potential bias abuse, past results clearly give conspiracy theorists a reason to believe there's a scratch-my-back and I'll-scratch-yours type of conduct among these committee members.
Dueling as NCAA Tournament administrators, helping coordinate tournament sites and officials, the committee has several NCAA liaisons at their disposal, as well as assistants that join them. CBS officials, though it's said are not officially involved, are present during bracketing and few people believe are not influential in setting up made-for-TV games.
During the process, committee members will also have at their convenience one coaching representative from each conference to hear reports from on all teams under consideration for selection and seeding. As coincidence would have it, the Big Ten representative for this season is Matta. Unlike Smith, Matta is allowed to go to bat for his team when speaking directly to the committee members.
Don't underestimate this human impact, as I believe coaches have benefited from this role in the past.
When the committee goes to lock itself in a conference room with laptops and televisions surrounding them, they'll officially consider the following criteria: RPI, strength of schedule, how teams fare in their last 12 games (changed from 10), average RPI rank of their opponents, average RPI rank of teams they beat, average RPI rank of teams they lost to, record against RPI top-50, record against RPI top-100, record against RPI 101-200, RPI 200+, road/neutral record and non-conference RPI and strength of schedule in addition to quality wins and bad losses. Injuries and suspensions are also taken into account, especially if a team will be playing the tournament at full strength.
Other various things that are said not to have an impact: a coach, traditional powers, conference record, how many bids a conference has, AP ranking, being a ratings draw, etc.
However, there's a strong argument the AP ranking is pertinent.
In each season, during the selection weekend, the committee ranks the teams 1-65 after the field has been selected. The top four (4) teams would naturally get the No. 1-seeds; teams 5-8 would naturally get the No. 2-seeds and so on until teams 64 and 65 would be given the play-in game Tuesday in Dayton.
I recently studied the final AP regular season polls back to 1997. I compared teams' seeding in the NCAA Tournament with where they finished in the AP regular season poll. The results were surprising.
Almost half (48 percent) of the teams ranked in the AP top 24 in any given year were given the corresponding seed as if it were the committee's own ranking. In other words, if you were in the top four of the final AP poll, you were likely to get a No.1-seed. In fact, 35 of the 40 teams ranked in the top-4 in a 10-year span did get No. 1-seeds.
In addition to nearly half of these teams ranked in the top 24 corresponding to the exact seed in the tournament, 86 percent of all teams ranked in the top 24 were seeded in the NCAA Tournament that same year within one seed of their corresponding rank. That means if you looked at the current AP poll, about 21 of the top 24 teams will be seeded no worse than one seed off their corresponding rank.
Of the 14 percent of teams that did not seed within one of their rank, 65 percent of those teams were non-BCS schools (i.e. Butler, Gonzaga, etc.). In other words, a majority of the exceptions were teams from smaller conferences where perhaps the committee differed on the perception of how strong (or weak) these teams were.
While these stats are not conclusive, they do lend credibility to the theory the AP poll isn't completely irrelevant when discussing seeding. Oh, and one other thing: no team ranked in the final AP Top 25 has ever been left out of the tournament when not on probation since the field expanded to 64 (65) teams.
BUCKING THE TREND
Since selecting (and seeding) the field is all relative, what better way to gauge Ohio State's position than to study the competition?
Let's compare and contrast all the teams battling Ohio State for the precious few final spots in the NCAA Tournament field.
To get an accurate reflection of how many spots are up for grabs, we have to first remove the automatic bids. Since the conference tournaments are still a few weeks away, this requires some projecting. However, it's safe to say that (usually) a champion will be crowned from teams that are likely shoe-ins for the tournament field anyhow, so we'll compile this list of automatic bids from the current conference leaders.
Therefore, Xavier, Duke, Kansas, Georgetown, Purdue, Memphis, Butler, Drake, BYU, UCLA, Tennessee and Saint Mary's will be excluded from the potential 34 at-large spots. If Butler, Drake, Xavier, etc. trip and fall during their conference tournaments, that would take away at-large bid possibilities from teams like Ohio State.
Taking the aforementioned teams out of the equation, here is the list of teams "safely" in the field as of today:
Atlantic 10 (1): Rhode Island
Atlantic Coast (2): North Carolina and Clemson
Big 12 (3): Kansas State, Texas and Texas A&M
Big East (5): Louisville, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Marquette and Pittsburgh
Big Ten (3): Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State
PAC 10 (2): Stanford and Washington State
SEC (3): Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Arkansas
West Coast (1): Gonzaga
Add it all up, and that's only 20 teams that are arguably "safe" of 34 spots. So that leaves 14 additional bids, excluding possible upsets in conference tournaments, up for grabs as of this moment.
Here are those teams fighting for 14 spots:
Atlantic 10 (3): St. Joseph's, Dayton and Massachusetts
Atlantic Coast (3): Maryland, Wake Forest and Miami (Fla.)
Big 12 (2): Baylor and Oklahoma
Big East (3): West Virginia, Syracuse and Villanova
Big Ten (2): Ohio State and Minnesota
Colonial (1): VCU
Conference USA (1): Houston
Mountain West (2): UNLV and New Mexico
PAC 10 (4): Arizona, Arizona State, USC and Oregon
SEC (3): Florida, Mississippi and Kentucky
Sun Belt (1): South Alabama
That's, as of right now, 25 teams fighting for approximately 14 spots. Of course, teams like South Alabama, Davidson and VCU may still win the automatic bids in their respective conferences, thus eliminating some of the competition, but you're still looking at 25 or so fighting for 14.
Let's look at the profiles, shall we?
Here is a table containing all of the at-large candidates with the specific criteria used by the NCAA selection committee:
To see the tables, click on the following link:
Profiles of teams on the bubble
Injuries are only a minimal factor among this group. However, two teams have sustained clear, impactful injuries: Dayton and Syracuse. The Flyers lost freshman Chris Wright, and their recent losing streak has coincided with that loss. However, Wright is due back in 7-10 days – a fact the committee will heavily take into account.
Syracuse, on the other hand, may not be quite as fortunate. Junior guard Eric Devendorf was lost mid-season with a torn ACL. However, because Devendorf is not expected back this season, the committee will not view that injury as much of a factor since Syracuse would not have him back for the tournament.
Of these 25 teams, only Houston and New Mexico do not have any top-50 victories. Only Baylor, Houston and West Virginia have been unscathed thus far in avoiding losses to teams ranked below 100 in the RPI.
Clearly, with five impressive top-50 wins (three of which were non-conference) and the No. 1-SOS in the country, Arizona can be added to the safely-in list, giving us 24 teams for 13 spots.
As you can see, there are no clear and decisive leaders among this group. Ohio State has just one top-50 win, something working heavily against them, but wins in their last three home games would suddenly give Ohio State wins against two top-25 teams and a total of four top-50 victories. The average opponent of Ohio State might be as high as 105-110 by season's end, which would be among the best in this entire group of bubble candidates.
If I had to pick 13 more teams to join Arizona, as of today, I would select the following teams from this list of 24:
Of the 11 teams left out in the cold, Arizona State, Mississippi, St. Joseph's and South Alabama are the unlucky ones that I'd have next in line.
As you can see, Ohio State is on thin ice. The next five games will make or break their dreams of the NCAA Tournament.
He's only a freshman. He's a 6-foot-6 power forward with less than 20 games of high school under his belt.
Ripe age for the picking, given Matta's past history.
Chane Behanan, an up-and-coming superstar holds verbal scholarship offers (already) from Ohio State, Cincinnati, Xavier and West Virginia. Having already visited Ohio State (Indiana game) and Cincinnati (Marquette), Behanan is going to make a lot of news over the next several years.
"He's going to be a load," said Dayton Dunbar assistant Al Powell, who saw Behanan score 34 points and grab 14 rebounds against his team in early January.
Scout Hoops analyst Evan Daniels says Behanan's future might be as a wing. Currently 6-6 and 205 pounds, Behanan is averaging 20.2 points per game for Cincinnati Aiken. However, it's his 12 rebounds per game that has scouts drooling.
"He uses his athleticism really well in the paint," Daniels added of Behanan.
Currently, nearly 50 percent of Behanan's rebounds are on the offensive end. With the knack for rebounding, the focus will be on his perimeter skills – especially if he aspires to play the wing at the next level.
"He's a triple-threat player: he can handle, score and defend," Powell said. "But definitely he can work on his shot and his range."
Ultimately, Behanan has all the tools in the world to make it on the perimeter.
"The biggest thing is his explosiveness," Daniels said. "He gets off the ground and attacks really well….He has good form shooting but he does need to work on his perimeter game."
As far as Behanan's school choices, it's too early to really tell. However, most sources indicate Ohio State is in very good shape in the early going.
If not a medical miracle, it's certainly an improbable rehabilitation.
Walter Offutt, a 6-2 senior combo guard from Indianapolis Warren Central had a surgery to repair a torn ACL on his right knee Dec. 22. The injury, which occurred the first week of the regular season, came just a little over a year after recovering fully from a torn ACL on his other knee.
But this time, Offutt is shredding the 6-12 month timetable for full recovery.
"He's at about 75 percent (healthy)," his mother Darlene said Tuesday. "(The doctors) suspect both his legs will be stronger from this."
Offutt continues to go through extensive therapy. As of a few weeks ago, his rehab was going so well, he had aspirations of returning for his high school's postseason to finish off his senior year in grand fashion.
That rhetoric, however, has toned down even if it was medically a possibility.
"He was hoping," his mother said. "It meant an awful lot to him and his teammates.
"But we're going to take it slow and not rush anything," she added, saying he will not play again this season.
As a junior, Offutt averaged 18.0 points and nearly three assists per game. Though Offutt is not specifically a point guard, he could be very valuable to the Buckeyes next season in battling Anthony Crater for the point guard duties – filling in for the departed Jamar Butler.
Offutt was offered by the Buckeyes right before his sophomore season. He quickly thereafter committed to Ohio State. The offer and consequent verbal commitment came despite a torn ACL suffered in June after his freshman campaign.
After a long wait, Offutt will arrive in Columbus for summer classes and involuntary workouts.
"He will be ready to go," Darlene said. "He's excited."