SvoNotes: Deciphering The OSU Cagers

Ohio State begins what it hopes will be a long run in the NCAA Tournament tonight vs. Loyola, but just how far will the Buckeyes go? A number of prediction sites have attempted to answer that question and have a consensus -- pretty far. In this edition of SvoNotes, Jeff Svoboda breaks down how that opinion jibes with that of Buckeye Nation.

For years, I've been intrigued by the relationship between cold, hard numbers and how they relate to what humans think and feel they see when looking at a subject.

That might sound a bit complicated, so think of it in terms of the hit movie and best-selling book "Moneyball."

The crux of that Academy Award-nominated film was that Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane could build a better baseball team by looking at the numbers than by sending scouts across the country.

The movie definitely marginalized the scouts, who were presented as a walking poster for the flaws of human objectivity, a group whose biased ways of evaluating subjects prevented them from noticing true ability.

That point was probably overrated in both the film and the book, as many baseball teams these days – including most of the successful ones – have found a way to marry in-person, human evaluations of skills with hardcore numbers crunching – aka Sabermetrics – in order to create more in-depth, accurate assessments of player quality. (And the movie and film conveniently overlooked the fact that even with the A's incredible run of success under Beane in the 2000s, the team still won a grand total of zero playoff series).

So how is that relevant on an Ohio State athletics website? Well, I couldn't help but think of the subject after noticing which people – and which numbers – think Ohio State will make the Final Four this year, with the Buckeyes' run starting tonight against Loyola (Md.).

First, I noticed that projection guru Nate Silver – the man who runs the fantastic Five Thirty Eight projection blog – tweeted Monday that Ohio State had a 41 percent chance of advancing out of the East Region and making the Final Four.

That percentage went up to 44.5 yesterday when Syracuse announced that big man Fab Melo was out for the tournament because of an eligibility issue. The Orange are still second in Silver's regional projections at 18.6 percent, while the only other team with a better than 10 percent chance of advancing to New Orleans is Wisconsin at 11.9 percent.

According to Silver, "The FiveThirtyEight tournament forecasts are probabilistic, and come to an objective estimate about the odds of each team advancing to each stage of the tournament. … The main component of the forecast is a composite of six ratings systems which are converted to the same scale and averaged together."

Silver said his methodology, in some ways, is similar to the way he aggregates polls to come up with his political predictions, which are often right on point. In other words, there's a method to his madness.

Meanwhile, over at the indispensible Ken Pomeroy site, kenpom.com, the college basketball ratings guru ranks Ohio State as his second overall team in the country behind Kentucky. His log5 analysis also has OSU on top of the bracket, with the Buckeyes possessing a 45.9 percent change of making it to the Big Easy ahead of Syracuse (17.5 percent) and Wisconsin (16.2 percent).

(Interesting, neither model has much faith in the No. 3 seed in the bracket, Florida State. Though the Seminoles are a potential Sweet 16 matchup for OSU, neither Silver nor Pomeroy pegs the Seminoles as having a realistic Final Four shot.)

Even President Barack Obama has lots of faith in the Buckeyes. Though his picks are far from scientific, Obama has the Buckeyes cutting down the East Region nets in Boston before falling to UNC in the national semifinal in his version of Barack-etology (props to ESPN for the pun).

On the other hand, Buckeye fans seem a little more pessimistic about Ohio State's chances. A poll posted on the Huntington Hoops board here on the site has 36.6 percent of respondents saying the Buckeyes will make the Final Four.

And I must be honest, that number feels a little high to me based on the vibe I've gotten from Ohio State fans leading up to the tournament. While fans felt a year ago – and rightly so, I must add – that the Buckeyes were national title contenders and had the excitement to match, I would describe the general feel I've gotten this year as cautiously optimistic.

Morale has improved a bit in the past few weeks after Ohio State downed Northwestern and Michigan State to end the regular season then easily dispatched Purdue and Michigan in the first two games at the Big Ten tournament. But, the intense loss to eventual No. 1 seed Michigan State in the tournament final left many wondering again about Ohio State's ability to hit shots and defend in the second half.

Those were legitimate questions down the stretch for Ohio State, especially as the Buckeyes lost games at Michigan and at home vs. the Spartans and Badgers in a span of five maddeningly inconsistent contests.

Shooting and team basketball were problems in each of those losses. Adding up the totals from those three games, Ohio State shot 37.1 percent as a team with just 25 assists against 40 turnovers. Senior William Buford looked well off his game at times, and after the Wisconsin loss, team members admitted off-the-court issues with focus; to many of its closest followers, OSU looked like a team on the verge of disarray.

Here's where I wonder if there's a bit of negative bias going on with fans and media who watch each Ohio State game. Watching a basketball team's every contest – 34, so far, 27 of them wins over a span of 1,340 minutes of play – not only accentuates its positive aspects but lays its flaws bare on the table.

On the other hand, watching SportsCenter highlights or even catching a few games of the other national contenders can leave more of a positive spin, depending on the day someone catches them. Teams like Kentucky and North Carolina often look really good to the casual observer, but it's hard to remember those teams have flaws just as deep as those that affect Ohio State.

According to the impartial observers, OSU's flaws are a lot less damaging than those on the other teams around the country. Just a few short weeks after being looked upon as a ripe upset pick by many of its followers, the team is viewed as close to a 50-50 shot to make Thad Matta's second Final Four at OSU.

What does it all mean? We'll find out over the next few weeks, but it would still help if Buford can hit a few big shots.

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