March Madness: Predicting how far the Buckeyes will go in the NCAA Tournament
Ohio State heads into March Madness with a chance to fix a disappointing season. EJ Liddell has been everything he was supposed to be, and at their best, the Buckeyes can compete with the most powerful teams in their league — see an 18-point win over Wisconsin or a win at Illinois.
But OSU enters the Big Dance having lost 4 of its last 5 games, including setbacks to Nebraska and Penn State. An ugly finish to the regular season has put the Buckeyes in the NCAA Tournament danger zone, facing a very capable first-round opponent and one of the nation’s best teams in the second round. Will the story be one of redemption or the continuation of the unraveling?
Ohio State didn’t get any favors as a No. 7 seed opening play with No. 10 seed Loyola-Chicago. Loyola won the NCAA title in 1963, but that’s probably not what they’re most famous for. Yes, this is the team of elderly nun/superfan Sister Jean and a 2018 run to the Final Four.
Loyola had a 25-7 season in the Missouri Valley Conference under 30-year-old head coach Drew Valentine. They won the conference tournament with a 64-58 win over Drake. In non-conference play, the Ramblers lost by 2 to Michigan State and by 9 to Auburn. The Ramblers live off their defense, holding opponents to just 61.7 points per game, 18th best in the NCAA.
Senior guard Lucas Williamson is the team leader, a career 1,329-point scorer and two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year who promises to harass OSU’s guards out front. Of the 9 players who average double-digit minutes for Loyola, 6 are seniors and 2 more are juniors. Turnovers can be a problem for the Ramblers: When they have 14 or more, they are 4-5. They are 21-2 when they turn the ball over less than 14 times. The other big indicator is field goal defense — when opponents shoot 41.8% or better, the Ramblers are 8-7. If Loyola holds the opponent to 41.7% or worse, they’re 17-0.
Given Loyola’s veteran talent, recent NCAA success, and the stumbling nature of this OSU team, many will pick the Ramblers to pull a very mild upset and finish OSU’s season. That said, Liddell’s the best player in this game and the guess here is that he’ll impose his will one more time and deliver a hard-fought 3-point win for the Buckeyes.
If the Buckeyes are fortunate enough to pull through, they’ll likely face No. 2 seed Villanova next in the South Region. Those Wildcats are tough defensively, have good balance, and just are playing on another level than the Buckeyes. Senior guard Collin Gillespie averages 3 3-pointers per game, and has absolutely no conscience. Nova commits just 10 turnovers per game, which is one of the lowest rates in college basketball. The Wildcats also shoot 82.3% at the free throw line. That’s an easy top ranking in the NCAA.
An immediate prediction? OSU scraps through the first round, but then loses by 14 to Nova in the second round. For a team that returned one of the best players in the nation, a 20-12 season would be a disappointment. It’ll be interesting to see how carefully Malaki Branham weighs a potential NBA future. With 4 recruits in 247sports’s top 61 players of the 2022 class, OSU’s long-term future should be solid. But a post-Liddell and possibly post-Branham world will be different, for certain.