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Ohio State basketball: Finishing strong

History says that NCAA champions tend to do a few things particularly well. If Ohio State wants to have a shot at a title this year, difficult to as that may be to imagine, it needs to be as close to perfect as possible for the rest of the year.

For Thompson, Scott, and Craft (L to R), the battle has just begun.
For Thompson, Scott, and Craft (L to R), the battle has just begun.
Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

Let's step into the LGHL Way-Back Machine again.  We've done it before, looking at National Signing Day and at neutral site scheduling in college football.  But today, we're going to use the Machine to gain some insight on the college basketball landscape with regard to this year's edition of the Ohio State Buckeyes and what chance, if any, that these Buckeyes have at winning a national title.

A quick (but necessary, I'm afraid) caveat: Ohio State probably isn't winning the national championship.  The odds to win the championship for this team opened at 20/1 in May of last year, and went as high as 12/1 in January.  Now?  A robust 40/1 shot on some boards.  Even with the resurgence of Sam Thompson on offense, and the ever-present, rosy-cheeked, Academic All-American defense of Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes doesn't really have the personality of a champion, or the resume bona fides.  Maybe.  Not yet, anyway.

Let's get in the Way-Back Machine to last year.  Your NCAA champion was the Louisville Cardinals co-champions of the Big East regular season, and winners of the Big East Tournament.  In fact, that Louisville team won 15-straight games to close out its season, culminating in a hard-fought win over Michigan in the national championship game, much to the surprise of Gordon Gee-hating9/11 referencingpremature-erupting head coach Rick Pitino.

Louisville's run last year wasn't an anomaly by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, it was just the latest in a long line of strong finishes by eventual national champions.  To wit:

Year National Champion Overall Record (conference record) Record Last 15 Games Conference Tournament Champion? Regular Season Champion?
2013 Louisville Cardinals 35-5 (14-4, Big East) 15-0 Yes Yes (co-Champs)
2012 Kentucky Wildcats 38-2 (16-0, SEC) 14-1 No Yes
2011 Connecticut Huskies 32-9 (9-9, Big East) 12-3 Yes No
2010 Duke Blue Devils 35-5 (13-3, ACC) 14-1 Yes Yes (co-Champs)
2009 North Carolina Tar Heels 34-4 (13-3, ACC) 13-2 No Yes
2008 Kansas Jayhawks 37-3 (13-3, Big 12) 14-1 Yes Yes (co-Champs)
2007 Florida Gators 35-5 (13-3, SEC) 12-3 Yes Yes
2006 Florida Gators 33-6 (10-6, SEC) 12-3 Yes No
2005 North Carolina Tar Heels 33-4 (14-2, ACC) 14-1 No No
2004 Connecticut Huskies 33-6 (12-4, Big East) 14-1 Yes No

So what does this tell us about how to win a national championship in basketball?  A few things.

For starters, winning either the regular season or conference tournament crown is all but a must.  With the exception of 2005 North Carolina, every team in the last 10 years has had a conference championship to their name heading into the NCAA Tournament.  Four teams won (or at least shared) both titles.

For the Buckeyes and the Big Ten, the regular season championship will likely belong to a Michigan school.  At 9-6, the Buckeyes can only share the regular season crown, and this can only happen if Ohio State wins out and Michigan (12-3), Michigan State (11-4) and Wisconsin (10-5) all lose-out.  Not likely to happen.  This leaves a tough run through the Big Ten Tournament to satisfy needed criteria of winning either form of conference championship.

To win those championships, and, ultimately, to win the championship requires not only being good, but also being hot.  To run through the yearly bracket challenge, a team must win six games in a row.  But, looking at the last 10 champions, none of those teams really started their superb play there.  In fact, no team that went on to win a national championship lost more than three games of their last 15, and six of the last 10 champions won at least 14 of their last 15 games en route to the title.

The tumultuous four-game losing streak of January for the Buckeyes hurt their national reputation, sure, but the current three-game winning streak (not to mention winning six-of-seven) couldn't come at a better time.  Ohio State has three regular season games left, three Big Ten Tournament games (for a championship) and then as many as six games in the NCAA tournament.  Put simply, starting with the win at Illinois on February 15th, we're right in the middle of the Buckeyes' final potential 15 games.  Three down, three wins, as many as 12 to go to match Louisville's 15-0 run last year, with a tiny bit of breathing room to lose one or maybe two games the rest of the year to have a shot to match the numbers of the last 10 national champions.

Next, we look at the record for each team.  No team that won a national champion (with the exception of 2011 Connecticut) lost more than six games in conference in the regular season.  Nine of the last ten champions won at least 12 games in conference (again, 2011 Connecticut is the outlier here)  Ohio State has nine Big Ten wins with three games to play.  Again, very little breathing room, if any at all, to match the vast majority of the last 10 champions.

The last thing to look at is something that the Buckeyes have zero control over whatsoever: the fact that they play in the Big Ten.  A Big Ten team hasn't won a national championship since Michigan State did it in 2000.  Over the last 10 years, three Big East teams, three ACC teams, three SEC teams and one Big 12 team have won titles.  Big Ten teams have been National runner-up four times (2005 North Carolina had to beat three straight Big Ten teams to win its title).  This isn't to say that it can't happen, but it is just another item limiting the breathing room for the Buckeyes to minuscule amounts.

So, to recap this trip in the Way-Back Machine: the last 10 national champions have been hot at the right time, have almost always won a conference or regular-season crown, and were, with one exception, dominant, winning teams in the regular season.  After the championship game on April 7, one team will have gone on a six-game winning streak to claim a national title.  But history says that it takes even more than that.  For the Buckeyes, "even more" has already started.