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What if there had been a 2020 NCAA Tournament? Predicting the madness that never was

Who might the Buckeyes have played in the first round if they had the opportunity?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

After enduring a brutal month of January that saw Ohio State lose five of seven games, the Buckeyes cleaned it up, winning nine of their final 12 and finishing a respectable 21-10 on the season. As you probably know, the Big Ten Tournament was cancelled the day that it was supposed to begin. Then, the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. And then pretty much every other sport you can think of was shut down, too.

For the first time since 1938, there was no March Madness. No sitting in front of your TV for four straight days to kick off the tournament, your eyes becoming glazed over and your butt numb because you only move to get food and then return to the TV. There was no 12-seed upsetting a 5-seed, and nobody shoving one of their seven brackets in your face, claiming to have picked the upset nobody saw coming, despite the fact that they filled out seven brackets, so it doesn’t count.

Now the Buckeyes, they were on quite a roll at the end there. Yes, they lost to Michigan State in East Lansing on their senior day, as many people predicted. But prior to that they’d won six of their last seven games, including beating three ranked teams at home. After the tournament was cancelled, Chris Holtmann said he felt pretty good about his team’s chances, had they been given a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. He pointed to the fact that Ohio State was one of six teams in the nation who were both top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom metrics.

The metrics are fun and all, but what’s even more interesting to myself and most fans are the more tangible things. Where would the Buckeyes have played? What seed would they have been? Who would they have played?

To torture us all over what could have been, I found projected brackets from the most accurate bracketolgists of the past 15 years, according to the Bracket Project over at bracketmatrix.com. Bracket Matrix combines all projected brackets on the internet throughout the year to create one master bracket, and the Bracket Project ranks each bracket site on their accuracy. It may shock you to know that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, America’s most popular bracket man, is actually the 55th most accurate bracketologist, according to Bracket Matrix. For that reason, I am not including his bracket.

With each projection, I’ll include:

  • Seed
  • Opponent
  • Location (if provided)
  • Source

Scenario 1: Ohio State (5) vs Akron (12)

Source: BRACKSKETBLOGS

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Akron Zips were the MAC Champions last season, finishing 24-7 overall. One common opponent they held with Ohio State was West Virginia, as they lost to the Mountaineers 94-84 in their season opener. The Zips rolled out four different double-digit scorers last year, including All-MAC First Team honoree Loren Cristian Jackson, who averaged 19.8 points and 4.5 assists per game from the guard position.

This would have been a tough one for the Buckeyes, as Akron has multiple double-digit scorers as well as two players shooting north of 40 percent from 3-point range. Had they won this game, they would play the winner of one of the 4-13 match-ups. In this particular bracket, those games were:

  • Seton Hall (4) - New Mexico State (13)
  • Oregon (4) - North Texas (13)
  • Kentucky (4)- Vermont (13)
  • Butler (4)- Stephen F. Austin (13)

Scenario 2: Ohio State (5) vs Liberty (12)

Source: 1-3-1 Sports

Photo courtesy of Liberty Men’s Basketball Twitter| @LibertyMBB_

If there was a 12-seed who was capable of knocking off a No. 5, look no further than the Liberty Flames, who did it exactly one year ago. In the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Liberty beat 5-seeded Mississippi State in the first round, busting up millions of brackets in the process.

This year’s version of Liberty basketball may have been even more talented, as they went 30-4 and won the Atlantic Sun conference yet again. While not eye-poppingly great at any one area of the game, Liberty excelled on every level of offense and brought back four starters from the team who made last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Had they knocked off the Flames, Ohio State would have played the winner of one of the 4-13 match-ups. In this particular bracket, those games were:

  • Kentucky (4)- New Mexico State (13)
  • Louisville (4) - North Texas (13)
  • Oregon (4)- Akron (13)
  • Wisconsin (4)- Vermont (13)

Scenario 3: Ohio State (5) vs Stephen F. Austin (12)

Location: Tampa, FL

Source: Gade Pool Bracketology

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Here we have another team that’s no stranger to massive upsets. I’m sure you remember when they beat No. 1 Duke 85-83 back in November. It was one of the biggest regular-season upsets ever, but they also had a pretty big one in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. In the first round that year, 14-seed Stephen F. Austin, led by Southland conference player of the year Thomas Walkup, stunned 3-seed West Virginia 70-56 in the first round.

This year’s SFA team was no slouch either, finishing the season 28-3 and winning their conference. The lumberjacks were on a 15-game (!!) winning streak when the conference tournament and NCAA Tournament were cancelled, making you wonder how far SFA could have potentially advanced in the big dance. 6-foot-6 senior guard Kevon Harris, who averaged 17.5 points per game to go along with 5.7 rebounds and a 41% 3-point percentage, would have been a challenge for any of Ohio State’s guards to contain. If any team on this list were to upset the Buckeyes, Stephen F. Austin may have been the one.

If Ohio State beat the SoConn champion Lumberjacks, they would have played the winner of one of the 4-13 match-ups. In this particular bracket, those games were:

  • Maryland (4) - Vermont (13)
  • Louisville (4) - North Texas (13)
  • Wisconsin (4) - Yale (13)
  • Oregon (4)- New Mexico State (13)

Scenario 4: Ohio State (4) vs Vermont (13)

Source: M-Sports Fans

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The champions of the America East conference last season, Vermont finished 26-7 and were four whole games ahead of second-place Stony Brook in the conference standings. Anthony Lamb, a four-year starter at Vermont who at one point was considered a legitimate NBA prospect (not so much anymore), would be a tough defensive assignment, but aside from him, the Catamounts didn’t boast an overly efficient offense, with very few perimeter threats. They mostly coasted through the America East schedule because they were just more talented than the other small schools who dwell in the conference. Ohio State would be a completely different beast for them.

If the Bucks were to beat Vermont in the first round, they’d play the winner of one of the 5-12 games. In this particular bracket, those games were:

  • Wisconsin (5)- Liberty (12)
  • Penn State (5)- Stephen F. Austin (12)
  • Butler (5)- Yale (12)
  • BYU (5)- East Tennessee State (12)

Scenario 5: Ohio State (6) vs Texas Tech (11)

Location: St. Louis, MO

Source: Delphi Bracketology

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This particular bracket drops Ohio State to the 6-line, which exposes them to some “bubble” teams from major conferences, rather than the best teams from the smallest conferences. Here, they have the 2019 national-runner up Texas Tech Red Raiders matching up with the Buckeyes. Texas Tech lost quite a bit from that 2019 team, including a first round pick in Jarrett Culver, but the 2020 team still pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and finished 18-13 (9-9 in Big 12 play).

The seventh-place Red Raiders were one of the smallest teams in the country, with only two non-guards on their roster. The tallest player on their roster was 6-foot-8 TJ Holyfield, who was a starter. The second tallest? A 6-foot-7 Russian freshman Andrei Savrasov, who averaged five minutes and one point per game last season. Kaleb Wesson is salivating just thinking about what could have been.

Had Ohio State beaten undersized Red Raiders, they would have played the winner of 3-seed Creighton and 14-seed Belmont in the second round of the Midwest Regional (this bracket had complete regions and locations, unlike the others).


Final Prediction

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

When considering all five of these teams, the one that jumped out as the biggest threat is Stephen F. Austin. Tall, athletic guards have given the Buckeyes issues before (Tony Carr, Marcus Carr, etc.), so Kevon Harris may have been an issue. On top of that, momentum is so important when we get to tournament time.

Two seasons ago, Auburn ran roughshod through the SEC tournament, raising their stock and getting a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament before advancing all the way to the Final Four. Stephen F. Austin may not have made that deep of a run, but they’d won 15 games in a row, so the Lumberjacks were certainly feeling more like the hunter than the hunted at the end of the season.

Toughest matchup: Stephen F. Austin

Most favorable matchup: Texas Tech

Ohio State’s potential in the 2020 tournament: Sweet 16