Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
After watching the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s first 24 games — 11 of which were against Big Ten opponents — there is no doubt in my mind that the Buckeyes can, and should, enter the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished record. What will happen once the Buckeyes find themselves in the middle of March Madness, however, is a different story.
But there’s a fallacy that, because any Big Ten team can beat another on any given night, the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball. Don’t confuse a competitive conference for a quality conference.
Apart from the Buckeyes, there is not one Big Ten team that has proven to be a legitimate contender for this season’s Final Four, let alone for a National Championship. What’s going to happen when OSU faces teams of comparable talent in March?
The Buckeyes have proven they possess the ability to overcome deficits and win close games, as they should against inferior Big Ten opponents. But, come March, the Buckeyes will learn that what you can do to teams like Penn State and Northwestern is different from what you can do against talent-laden rosters such as Duke, Kentucky and Kansas.
OSU freshman forward Jared Sullinger is the NBA draft prospect in the conference, who will be a lottery selection once he declares for the draft and could potentially be the only future first-round selection playing in the Big Ten this season.
Besides Sullinger, who might be the best player in college basketball this season, the Buckeyes’ roster also consists of future NBA players, fifth-year senior forward David Lighty and junior guard William Buford. Conversely, only Purdue appears to have multiple NBA-ready players on its roster, seniors JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, both of whom are projected to be second-round picks this June.
Looking at ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi’s latest projection of the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68, Duke is the No. 2 seed in the Buckeyes’ region, meaning that if things go as expected, OSU would meet Duke in the Elite Eight. Using the talent in the Big Ten to prepare for Duke’s crop of NBA prospects — including seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler — would be the equivalent of using a night out in Columbus, Ohio, to prepare for a trip to Las Vegas.
From Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade to Greg Oden and Joakim Noah, NBA-ready prospects have been as much of a staple of the Final Four as cutting down the nets and “One Shining Moment.” The Buckeyes have those types of players, but can they overcome teams with equal, or greater, talent?
The Buckeyes will have to wait until March to learn the answer — and they might not like it.