Ohio State's win over Michigan on Tuesday was huge for a number of reasons. Not only did it give the Buckeyes another win over their hated rival -- and give us a chance to watch Evan Turner bury his shot against the Wolverines over and over -- but it also officially gave a tiny, flickering light, to Ohio State's NCAA Tournament chances.
The Buckeyes have a dearth of quality wins at the moment. Outside of their upset over Kentucky, the Michigan victory is unquestionably their second biggest win, and per ESPN, they're not even currently in the top 50 in the RPI. In order to make up ground, Ohio State needs to add to that resume in a hurry.
Luckily, the schedule sets up to theoretically give Ohio State a shot to do that. After a road game at Nebraska on Saturday, Ohio State finishes up with home games against Michigan State, Iowa, and a road game at Michigan State. If Ohio State somehow managed to win three of those last four games, they'd have a 20-11 overall record, and a 12-6 mark in the Big Ten. Barring an embarrassing Big Ten Tournament loss, that seems like an NCAA-worthy resume.
But while that's possible, if we're all being honest here, that isn't super likely. Ohio State's most probable postseason destination seems to be the NIT. But is Ohio State even a lock for that at the moment? What would they need to do to get there?
Per the NCAA, Ohio State's RPI today is 75. (We know that the RPI is garbage and not useful for evaluating team quality, but the NCAA selection committee does use it, so it has merit). The Buckeyes can point to a reasonably strong out of conference strength of schedule (55th, per ESPN's profile), a huge signature win (Kentucky has the 9th ranked RPI), and a reasonable conference record. But a lack of quality wins, as Ohio State is just 9-10 against the RPI Top 150, hurts them badly.
Is that an NIT-caliber profile? Good enough for a top seed? A home game? Let's take a look at how previous NIT fields stacked up.
Just one Big Ten squad went to the NIT last season, Illinois. The Fighting Illini had a 19-13 (9-9) record, and finished the year with an RPI at 72, numbers not altogether dissimilar from Ohio State's profile this year. Illinois even had one signature win (they beat Maryland), and some questionable league losses (at Nebraska, at Minnesota). Illinois grabbed a No. 4 seed in the NIT, and promptly got obliterated by Alabama in the first round.
A few other power conference teams with even worse resumes slipped in and grabbed NIT bids last season. Vanderbilt (18-13, 9-9) and Arizona State (17-15, 9-9) grabbed two of the last at-large bids, despite having RPIs of 101 and 102, respectively. Both programs played inferior schedules to Ohio State and suffered worse losses than Ohio State did this season. If Ohio State loses out this season and finishes with a 17-15 record, the Buckeyes may still have a better computer profile than either of these teams, but it might be close.
Two Big Ten teams picked up NIT bids in 2014, Illinois and Minnesota. The Gophers grabbed a top seed, thanks to the 50 RPI ranking, but an under .500 conference record (8-10), 19-13 overall record, and lack of a top 80 RPI win kept them out of the NCAAs. Illinois had an even worse Big Ten record (7-11 and 19-14 overall), but a respectable RPI (67) and a 9-8 record away from home. Illinois earned a No. 2 seed and and made it to the second round, while Minnesota beat SMU to win the whole dang tourney.
The major conference programs to grab the last at-large bids in 2014 had better computer records than 2015. Of the last four major conference teams in, West Virginia (17-15, 9-9) had the worst RPI, at 87. If Ohio State lost all of their games, that may be about where the Buckeyes reside. The Mountaineers could claim a win over Kansas, who finished with the best RPI in the country, along with four other top 50 RPI victories. Ohio State can't compete with that.
Of course, just like with the NCAA Tournament, there are bracket busters who could limit the number of at large bids handed out. Any team that wins their conference regular season title but loses their tournament championship gets an NIT bid, no matter how small the conference. So if there are swarms of upsets in the small conference tournaments, it is possible to see a scenario where Ohio State gets left out if they're setting with an RPI in the 80s, and a relatively middling 17-15 overall record.
There's still a chance Ohio State makes the NIT even if they lose their next four regular season games and drop the Big Ten Tournament opener, but for the Buckeyes to feel comfortably secure in a postseason destination, they probably need to win one more game. That might be a win at Nebraska on Saturday, which would guarantee that Ohio State has a winning regular season Big Ten record. Failing that, a win in their opening round Big Ten Tournament game (which, if they lose out, may also be against Nebraska) ought to do it.
If Ohio State beats Nebraska and is able to grab one upset over their last three games, which isn't impossible given that they get a crack at Iowa and Michigan State at home, I think Ohio State is in good shape to grab at least one home game in the NIT. Depending on what else happens with the NIT bubble, maybe Ohio State can grab a home game simply by beating Nebraska twice.
The latest NIT Bracket Projections from Big Apple Buckets, updated yesterday, has Ohio State as a five seed, taking on Houston. That might be an interesting game, but Ohio State has the potential to give themselves a better matchup, or at least a better path towards a trophy this season. We'll see if they can get there.