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Ohio State basketball’s path to a Big Ten title

The Buckeyes don't fully control their own destiny, but they have a clear road to finishing atop the conference.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

March is still over two weeks away, but yet the madness has already begun in the Big Ten. The nation’s best college basketball conference has been a grind all season long, and will likely see over half of its teams make it into the NCAA Tournament. As things stand, the B1G currently has seven programs ranked in the AP Top 25, with four of them ranking in the Top 15. While the Big Ten has been strong from top to bottom this year, three teams have separated themselves from the rest of the pack:

Michigan, Illinois, and to many people’s surprise — including my own — Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have come seemingly out of nowhere to take college hoops by storm, working their way all the way up to No. 4 in the country and in line to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Chris Holtmann has done a phenomenal job with his group of guys, as his team has rattled off four-straight wins over AP Top 25 opponents. Overall, Ohio State has won eight of its last nine contests, including its current five-game win streak. This impressive run has put the Buckeyes squarely in the conversation for the Big Ten title race.

The Big Ten standings

As we look at the current state of affairs, Michigan is in first place in the Big Ten at 8-1 (13-1 overall). The Wolverines looked pretty dominant overall outside of a puzzling 75-57 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 16. Unfortunately for Juwan Howard’s team, his guys have not played a game since Jan. 22 as part of two-week COVID-19 shutdown across all of Michigan athletics. It is unclear whether or not the program will try to make up any of the games it has missed during this hiatus, which included a matchup against No. 6 Illinois. The Wolverines expect to return this weekend against No. 21 Wisconsin, and have six games officially remaining on their schedule.

Illinois is in second place, slightly edging ahead of Ohio State by win percentage even though both schools are just 0.5 games out of first. The Illini have been a bit up and down at times this year, but still sit at 9-3 (13-5 overall) having won each of their last four contests. Ayo Dosunmo and Kofi Cockburn are one of the best guard-forward combos in all of college basketball, and that team can beat you in a variety of ways. Illinois doesn’t have many bad losses outside of a tough 66-63 defeat at the hands of Maryland back in early January. Every other loss has been to teams ranked in the AP Top 25, including an 87-81 contest against Ohio State. They have seven games remaining on their schedule.

Which brings us to the Buckeyes, who round out the top three programs in the Big Ten at 10-4 (16-4 overall). Ohio State has some of the most impressive wins in the conference, including that victory over Illinois, an 89-85 win over then-No. 8 Iowa, a 12-point dub over a then-No. 10 Wisconsin, and two wins over a ranked Rutgers squad. However, they also have some questionable losses, dropping two games to Purdue and suffering a 71-70 upset at the hands of Northwestern. That being said, Holtmann’s guys have definitely been playing their best basketball lately, and with all of their core players back in lineup look ready to take on this stretch run. They have six games left on the schedule.

So, with that getting us to where we are now, obviously Michigan would win the Big Ten if they close out their season undefeated. However, if the Wolverines were to lose a few games, which is certainly possible, what does Ohio State need to do to secure a B1G title?

If Michigan goes 5-1...

Luckily for the teams behind them, the Wolverines have a very tough road ahead of them — especially having not played a game in quite some time. We’ll get to that in a bit, but all that matters here is that Ohio State and Michigan still have to play head-to-head. This means the Buckeyes could themselves make sure Howard’s team does not finish out their final six-game stretch undefeated. A 5-1 finish for the Wolverines puts them at 13-2 in Big Ten play, good for a .867 win percentage, which is important as the tiebreaker with every team not playing the same amount of games.

What does this mean for everyone else? Well... nothing. If Michigan finishes their remaining games 5-1 or better, they clinch the Big Ten title. Illinois could go a perfect 7-0, which would put their B1G record at 16-3 — a .842 win percentage not quite good enough to catch the Wolverines. The Buckeyes could go a perfect 6-0 to finish 16-4 in Big Ten play, but their .800 win percentage would also not get the job done. The lack of games has perhaps helped Michigan in this instance, not having to play additional games in a conference where anything can happen on any given night. If anyone is to catch them now, the Wolverines will have to lose at least twice.

If Michigan goes 4-2...

That being said, there is every chance in the world this Michigan team loses at least twice given the teams they have to play coming off their long hiatus. Right of the gate, this weekend they will travel to take on No. 21 Wisconsin in Madison. From there they will return home to take on No. 25 Rutgers, and right after that they will travel to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State. They finish off with road battles against Indiana and Michigan State sandwiching a home matchup against No. 15 Iowa. You can certainly find two losses in there somewhere.

A 4-2 finish for Michigan puts their final record at 12-3 on the year, or a .800 win percentage. Now, while this makes it possible for someone to catch them, it also means that Ohio State would have to go a perfect 6-0 down the stretch to secure a Big Ten title. That will be no easy feat, as the Buckeyes themselves have rematches against both Illinois and Iowa staring them in the face as well as their lone battle against Michigan. However, this also means they would fully control their own destiny at this point, because a perfect undefeated finish would mean they knocked off both Michigan and Illinois along the way, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Wolverines and keeping them ahead of the Illini for the Big Ten title.

If Michigan goes 3-3...

We won’t just keep adding losses to the Wolverines record for the sake of the argument, but as you saw with the remaining schedule for UM, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world if they finished out the year .500. An 11-4 final record for Michigan (.730 win percentage) would open up the door for both Ohio State and Illinois.

In this scenario, the Buckeyes could finish 5-1 and still win the conference. A 15-5 record for Ohio State (.750 win percentage) would be good enough to get the job done, meaning they could drop one more game this season and still win the Big Ten — that is, given Illinois doesn’t finish better than 5-2. A 6-1 finish for the Illini gets them to 15-4 (.789, ahead of OSU), but a 5-2 finish puts them at 14-5 (.737, behind OSU). The Buckeyes will be able to take care of one of those losses themselves if they beat Illinois again, but if Ohio State does lose one of their final six, they will need the Illini to stumble twice in order to stay ahead.

Anything under a 5-1 finish probably doesn’t get the job done for Holtmann’s team. Those two losses against Purdue and that blown potential game-winner against Northwestern could really come back to haunt the Buckeyes if they miss a Big Ten title by a game or so. Ohio State has a really tough final stretch, but if they can take down Michigan and beat a couple really good teams that they have already proven they can beat (both Illinois and Iowa are at home this time, too) then it is not yet out of the realm of possibilities that Ohio State can win the Big Ten this season.