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Trophy watch: Breaking down the OAC basketball title race

Ohio Northern is one of four teams in serious contention for the OAC regular season title with six games remaining. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

With six regular season OAC games left on the schedule, the Ohio Northern men’s basketball team is right in the thick of things in the conference title race.

Northern is one of four teams that now have a realistic shot at the conference trophy -- and all are within one game of each other at the top of the OAC standings. John Carroll and Marietta are both 9-3 in the OAC, while Ohio Northern and Baldwin Wallace are both 8-4. Each team has six regular season OAC games left.

So, who has the best shot at winning the conference title? How might ONU, who fell one game short of winning it last year, be able to claim their first OAC title since 2001? We broke the scenarios down here.

The tiebreakers

With the conference’s top four teams so close in the standings, it’s important to understand how the conference champion is decided if there is a tie. According to OAC commissioner Tim Gleason, the first tiebreaker is how the teams fared in head-to-head competition.

For example, if John Carroll and Marietta finished the year tied for first with identical conference records, the champion would be whoever had the better record in head-to-head matchups. Therefore, John Carroll would win because they swept Marietta 2-0 this season.

Because OAC teams play each other twice every season, however, there is the opportunity for a split in head-to-head competition. Then, Gleason says, the next tiebreaker is how each team fared against the rest of the conference -- from the top of the standings on down.

For example, let’s say the conference standings at the end of the season were as follows: Marietta and Baldwin Wallace tied for first, John Carroll in third, Ohio Northern in fourth, Mount Union in fifth, etc. Note that Marietta and Baldwin Wallace have tied their season series at 1-1. This means that one would then look at how each team did against John Carroll, and whoever fared better against the Blue Streaks would be the conference champ. If both split their season series' with JCU at 1-1, for example, then one would look at ONU, and would go on down the list if necessary.

And, in the statistically improbable likelihood that both teams performed equally against every team in the rest of the conference, then a coin flip would decide the champion.

The scenarios

As OAC play goes, all 10 schools play each other twice, in a two-round format. This means that each school plays the other nine schools first, then plays them again in round two, except at the opposite venue of the first round. The conference slate totals 18 games and each team has currently played 12 of them.

At this point, it is reasonable to rule out the rest of the field beyond the top four -- John Carroll, Marietta, Baldwin Wallace and ONU -- when considering who has a realistic shot at winning the conference down the stretch. Mount Union and Muskingum are tied for fifth place at 6-6, two games behind Baldwin Wallace and Ohio Northern, who are tied for second, and three games behind John Carroll and Marietta, who are tied for first. Muskingum has a 2-4 record against the conference’s top four teams, however, and Mount Union is currently 1-5 against the same field. With just three weeks remaining, it's safe to say that the OAC's top four teams have separated themselves from the pack.

So, when considering the top four teams, here are their overall records against each other to this point:

John Carroll: 3-1 (2-0 vs. Marietta, 1-0 vs. ONU, 0-1 vs. Baldwin Wallace)

Marietta: 2-3 (1-0 vs. ONU, 1-1 vs. Baldwin Wallace, 0-2 vs. John Carroll)

Baldwin Wallace: 2-2 (1-0 vs. John Carroll, 1-1 vs. Marietta, 0-1 vs. ONU)

Ohio Northern: 1-2 (1-0 vs. Baldwin Wallace, 0-1 vs. John Carroll, 0-1 vs. Marietta)

Right now, John Carroll has the best shot at winning the title. They will face Baldwin Wallace at home, then play at Ohio Northern in their two remaining games against the top four. But going down the stretch, they already have a one-game lead on both of those teams and hold the tiebreaker against Marietta.

If John Carroll can take care of business against the other four teams that they will face besides Baldwin Wallace and ONU, then they will likely have the clearest path to the trophy. Losing, however, would open the door for the rest of the top four to sneak in and steal the conference crown.

Losing would allow Marietta to take the one-game lead that it needs to avoid the tiebreaker and win the championship, if the Pioneers were to win the rest of their games.

A John Carroll loss would allow Baldwin Wallace to have a chance if they win out (which would include a win over JCU) because then Baldwin Wallace -- although they would have the same conference record as JCU -- would own the tiebreaker, as they would have swept the season series.

And a John Carroll loss would also open the door for Ohio Northern, who would then have to win out (which would include a win over JCU) and therefore tie JCU. Because the season series between ONU and JCU would be split, it would then depend on who finished third to see who would win the conference. If Baldwin Wallace finished third (under those circumstances), ONU would win the tiebreaker because they would have gone 2-0 against the Yellow Jackets while JCU would have gone 1-1. If Marietta finished third, however, JCU would win the tiebreaker because they went 2-0 against the Pioneers this year while the best ONU could do would be 1-1.

Long story short, despite all four teams being within one game of each other, John Carroll is the only team that controls their own destiny. If they win out, which is easier said than done, then they will be crowned OAC champions. If they lose, however, Marietta, Baldwin Wallace or Ohio Northern could win out and potentially claim the crown.

Marietta would have the best chance of winning out because they face just one ‘top-four’ team in their final six games, a road contest at ONU. Baldwin Wallace would have to beat two top-four teams, ONU and John Carroll, and both contests will be on the road. With just as daunting a task, ONU would have to defeat all three of their top-four opponents, although Northern will play all three of those games at home.

All four teams will be in contention for the regular season title, which Marietta has won three years in a row, but John Carroll holds a slight advantage as the stretch run ensues.

The wild card

Lost in the discussion of ‘winning out’ is the possibility that one of the top four teams might stumble along the way against a team that was left out of the OAC’s upper echelon.

In fact, given the depth of the conference this year, this may be more likely than not.

After all, three of the conference’s top four teams have already lost twice to teams who are not in the top four; only Marietta has a clean slate with six games remaining.

John Carroll fell to Muskingum on Saturday and also lost to Mount Union in December. Baldwin Wallace lost to Muskingum earlier this season and then lost to Heidelberg last week. Ohio Northern has lost to Heidelberg and Wilmington, two teams who are 4-8 in the conference, in the last two weeks.

Gleason, in his 27th year as commissioner, raved about the depth of the conference this year.

“There’s very little difference in the scores, even though there might be a difference in the standings,” Gleason said on Monday. “That’s when you know you have depth.”

An upset loss suffered by any of the conference's top four teams could severely alter this year's title race.

The home stretch

On Wednesday night, Baldwin Wallace will face Ohio Northern in the first of four matchups between the OAC’s top four teams to conclude the regular season.

Here are the other matchups:

Feb. 2/7    Baldwin Wallace at John Carroll

Feb. 2/10    John Carroll at Ohio Northern

Feb. 2/17    Marietta at Ohio Northern

While it will likely be far more than just these games that decides the outcome of the conference this year -- and it would be foolish to think otherwise -- each of these games will play a pivotal role.

And even though John Carroll sits in the driver’s seat, they will still have to win -- and might even need to win out -- in order to claim the conference crown. So will everyone else, which summons the harsh reality of any close title race: something has to give.

As much fun as it is to narrow down the possible scenarios and to consider probabilities with just six games left, it will be impossible to predict what will happen in the next three weeks. Buckle up, basketball fans. This could get interesting.

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