March Absence

Examining the possibility of UC, Xavier, and OSU all missing the NCAA Tournament.
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The last time Cincinnati, Ohio State, and Xavier—the state of Ohio’s three premier Division I college basketball programs—all missed the NCAA tournament was in 1984.

(Ghostbusters was released over 30 years ago??? “Sorry, Venkman, I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”)

This is relevant today because it’s conceivable that the Bearcats, Buckeyes, and Musketeers could all miss the Big Dance again in 2015. Though the bracketologists at CBS, ESPN and Sports Illustrated project all three schools to be safely in the tournament (at the moment), no school is listed higher than a No. 8 seed. Basically, they’re all right at the bottom of the at-large-bid barrel. So while a Bearcat-Buckeye-Musketeer tournament blackout is not likely, it’s not impossible either. And there are two primary reasons why all three schools’ tournament prospects remain less than certain:

1) A combined 8-15 record in games away from their home arenas, including a 6-11 mark in true road games (meaning not a neutral site).

2) Blown chances at meaningful out-of-conference victories for each squad, including Cincinnati falling to Mississippi, Nebraska, and Virginia Commonwealth; Ohio State losing to Louisville and North Carolina; and Xavier dropping contests against Long Beach State and Auburn.

Let’s examine where each school stands as of Wednesday morning, Jan. 28:

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Cincinnati
Record:
14-5, 5-2 American Athletic Conference
Last time missing NCAA tournament: 2010
Best win: 71-62 overtime home victory over then-No. 19 San Diego State on December 17.
Worst loss: In its first game without coach Mick Cronin, UC was spanked 68-47 at home by VCU on December 20. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the defeat was the Bearcats’ worst home loss since January 1987.
Number to know: 0, as in the number of contests UC has remaining against currently-ranked foes.
Path to the NCAA tournament: Take advantage of limited opportunities.

Cincinnati possesses the smallest margin of error of the three schools. Due to the mediocrity that is the American Athletic Conference—the AAC has no teams ranked in the AP Poll and is a paltry No. 8 in CBS’ conference RPI standings—the Bearcats will enjoy few chances to net impact wins the rest of the way. Yes, UC is in good position now, but that would change by failing to take care of business at Fifth Third Arena, something the shooting-challenged Bearcats—ranked No. 284 out of 355 teams in scoring offense—absolutely need to avoid with upcoming home dates against Connecticut on Thursday, Xavier on February 18, and Memphis on March 8. If UC finishes strong at home; obtains a road win at SMU, Temple, or Tulsa; and avoids an early exit in the AAC tournament, the Bearcats should be in line for their fifth straight bid to the Big Dance.

Notes: As Cronin rebuilt the program in wake of Bob Huggins’ ouster, Cincinnati missed the NCAA tournament from 2006-10. Prior to 2006, the Bearcats had advanced to the tournament every year since 1992…UC is 2-3 in true road games this season.

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Ohio State
Record:
16-5, 5-3 Big Ten Conference
Last time missing NCAA tournament: 2008
Best win: Ohio State thrived with a small-ball lineup and acquired its first triumph over a ranked foe all season with a 82-70 home decision over No. 23 Indiana on Sunday.
Worst loss: On December 30, the Buckeyes fell flat on their face in their Big Ten opener at home against Iowa, falling behind by 12 at halftime and losing 71-65 in a game that spelled the beginning of the end for Ohio State’s zone defense.
Number to know: 2, or the number of wins OSU owns in seven games away from Value City Arena.
Path to the NCAA tournament: Commence annual march to March.

A weak-to-mediocre non-conference slate, a misguided adherence to a zone defense, and a propensity for slow starts precipitated an uneven first three months for coach Thad Matta’s squad. However, the Buckeyes are the best positioned bunch of the three schools to make up ground quickly and thrust themselves off the bubble. For one, playing in the Big Ten supplies Ohio State with ample opportunities for “signature” wins, and remaining forays against Maryland (home), Michigan State (away), Michigan (away), Nebraska (home) and Wisconsin (home)—not to mention the Big Ten tournament—will go far in not only determining the Buckeyes’ NCAA tournament candidacy, but also the team’s seeding. Secondly, Matta’s teams have a history of finishing the regular season strong. In the past three seasons, the Buckeyes are 35-22 from Jan. 15 to Selection Sunday, including a 27-11 mark from February on. And lastly, typically incorporated into those fervent finishes to the regular season are strong performances in the Big Ten tournament. Under Matta, OSU has failed to advance to the semifinal round of the Big Ten’s annual hoops conclave only twice in 10 seasons, claiming four tournament crowns and moving on to the title game on three other occasions.

Notes: Ohio State went from making the NCAA final in 2007 to missing the tournament in 2008 because of freshmen defections to the NBA draft (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook) and key seniors (Ron Lewis, Ivan Harris) exhausting their eligibility… Aside from 2008, the Buckeyes have made the NCAA tournament in all but one of Matta’s previous 10 seasons; OSU finished 20-12 (8-8 Big Ten) during Matta’s initial season in 2005-06, but were ineligible to compete in the Big Dance as a result of self-imposed sanctions in the aftermath of violations committed by former coach Jim O’Brien.

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Xavier
Record:
14-7, 5-4 Big East Conference
Last time missing NCAA tournament: 2013
Best win:
The Musketeers took control early and scored a 66-53 victory Tuesday at Georgetown, the team’s first road triumph in the Big East this season.
Worst loss: Blowing a 13-point halftime lead and losing 89-88 in double OT on the road at Auburn on December 20.
Number to know: 5, or the number of consecutive road games Xavier dropped prior to Tuesday’s victory.
Path to the tournament: Build off the breakthrough triumph.

Tuesday’s victory over Georgetown was a nice statement win for Xavier, and if all goes to plan, it should be the start of a nice run for coach Chris Mack’s blue-clad ballers. Beginning with Saturday’s trip to free-falling Seton Hall, the Musketeers face a stretch of six straight games opposite presently-unranked competition. A strong showing during that spell could bump Xavier off the bubble and out of a possible First Four play-in game at University of Dayton Arena, a site that saw the Muskies’ tournament end before it really got started last March. If Xavier does fall short of making the NCAA tournament, it can point to its subpar defense as the central cause. In Big East play, the Musketeers rank ninth out of 10 teams in scoring defense, opponents’ field-goal percentage, and opponents’ 3-point percentage.

Notes: Before missing the tournament in 2013, Xavier had advanced to the Big Dance every year since 2006…The Muskies have made the Sweet 16 four times since 2008, though point guard Dee Davis is the only player on the current roster to see action during the team’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2012.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at gfreking@gmail.com.

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