Rob Oller: Upsets are beauty and bane of March Madness. Just ask Ohio State.

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
When Oral Roberts followed its first-round NCAA Tournament  knockout of Ohio State with a roundhouse that eliminated Florida on Sunday, it took some of the sting out of the Buckeyes' defeat.

Ohio State fans are feeling better about their Buckeyes now that Oral Roberts has shown itself capable of challenging for the NCAA Tournament title.

On the other hand, with Ohio University having advanced to the second round — oops, I mean The Ohio University — Buckeye Nation wonders why Bobcats coach Jeff Boals made it through to Monday while OSU coach Chris Holtmann did not.

(Aside: The schadenfreude directed at Ohio State by Bobcats brethren who bleed green and white has been impressive. My advice to those who bleed scarlet and gray? Just take it. The fine folk of Athens are like a biker gang, except with smiley faces instead of skulls on their leather jackets. Best to pull over and let them rumble loud and proud down the highway.)

Where were we? Oh yes, NCAA Tournament parity. There’s a reason that seeds and early spring growth go hand-in-hand in March. Teams including No. 15 Oral Roberts, No. 14 Abilene Christian, No. 13 Hell’s Bobcats and No. 12 Oregon State pop from the ground like crocuses, prompting a “where did they come from?” reaction that in one significant way gives March Madness the edge on college football.

Little guys really do have a chance. Not that Colgate could contend with Alabama in football, but what is America if not the land of opportunity? Expand the playoff.

Backing up, Ohio State’s 75-72 overtime loss to Oral Roberts — only the ninth time in tournament history a No. 2 seed lost to a No. 15 — initially felt like a crossroads moment for the Buckeyes’ program, and not in a good way. Until then, Holtmann’s OSU resume was solid if not spectacular: four 20-win seasons and a 2-2 record in two tournament appearances, though never advancing past the second round.

Then Oral Roberts happened, which changed the directional narrative and brought Holtmann’s coaching under a more powerful microscope. Suddenly the script flipped. The same coach who got Ohio State to overachieve this season became the one prone to underachievement.

Funny how that works. Fall to a higher seed and the reasons for losing are accepted as explanations. Fall to a lower seed and they become excuses. Such is a world in which a late turnover or missed foul shot marks the difference between brilliant and Bozo coaching.

But the door of cause-and-effect justice swings both ways. The Buckeyes instantly look better after Oral Roberts made it two stunners in a row by knocking off No. 7 Florida on Sunday to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 1974.

Ohio State losing to the Golden Eagles still smells, but the odor is not unlike the Chillicothe paper mill — how bad it reeks depends which way the wind blows. With so many NCAA upsets piling up, Holtmann and the Buckeyes are lucky the winds of parity are carrying Friday’s stinkeroo away from their critics’ nasal passages.

Oral Roberts and Loyola advancing to the Sweet 16 — here’s hoping for a Catholics vs. Charismatics national semifinal — makes Ohio State’s loss look better, diffusing criticism. “How could the Buckeyes lose to a church school?” becomes “Hey, the Golden Eagles are really good.”

They are good, but the Buckeyes also played poorly. Looking to next season for a moment, Holtmann needs to find a big man, likely via the transfer portal, who can aid the defense and provide E.J. Liddell more room to operate on offense. Size down low also would allow the often-injured Kyle Young, if he opts to return, to maneuver more out of harm’s way. And as guard play often dictates NCAA tournament success, it becomes paramount for true freshman Meechie Johnson to step up and incoming freshman Malaki Branham to hit the floor running. 

First-weekend NCAA Tournament losses by top seeds Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa and Purdue begs the question: Is the Big Ten really as strong as everyone assumed?

How one views Ohio State is something of a Rorschach test. Do you see a No. 2 seed that got caught napping? Or are the Buckeyes a No. 2 who really should have been a No. 5 and ran into an Oral Roberts that should have been a 12? Or, given what has happened with No. 1 Illinois losing to No. 8 Loyola, No. 4 Purdue losing to No. 13 North Texas and No. 2 Iowa falling to No. 7 Oregon, maybe the Big Ten was not as strong as everyone thought? 

Ultimately, the Buckeyes’ reality is that the passing of time will not be kind. Next season, never mind 20 years from now, the storyline from 2021 will not be that parity prevailed, but that a No. 2 seed failed. 

Unless Oral Roberts keeps winning. Then Ohio State mostly is off the hook. Next up for the church team: Arkansas. You know who the Buckeyes want. 

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD