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Sports Today: Handicapping the rest of the Big Ten race as Reds head to spring training

A sleepy Tuesday in February seems like a perfect time to project out the rest of the race. 

This is a question that would have seemed crazy a couple of months ago (unless you thought we were talking about the women’s team or the wrestling Bucks), but it is now reality. 

The Buckeyes are in first place with two weeks left in the regular season. 

RELATED: College basketball is better in Ohio than your state this season

If Purdue and Michigan State win out (they probably will, as you’ll see below), Ohio State can afford a loss and maintain a share of the Big Ten crown. 

The Buckeyes would also keep the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament since they beat the Boilermakers and the Spartans (really glad we only got a total of three games matching the top three teams in the league thanks to Jim Delany’s misguided eastern expansion). 

However, Chris Holtmann’s crew has by far the hardest remaining schedule among the top trio of teams in the Big Ten. 

That starts Thursday night with a trip to Penn State. The No. 40 team at KenPom.com handed Ohio State its only Big Ten loss to date, though the Nittany Lions had to play out of their minds and get a buzzer-beating trey to do it. 

Of greater concern then is a trip to Michigan on Sunday. 

The Wolverines are the No. 27 team at KenPom and a group no doubt hungry to avenge a nine-point loss in Columbus even if it was more than two months ago. 

Ohio State closes out the home slate next Tuesday with a visit from Rutgers (No. 153) before having to go to Indiana. Archie Miller’s team has endured an up-and-down season, but the 75th-ranked Hoosiers are certainly good enough to play spoiler, especially on their home floor. They’ll probably be stinging from their loss in Columbus, too. 

Meanwhile, Purdue’s toughest game left is a home game against Penn State. The Boilermakers also have to go to No. 94 Wisconsin and No. 113 Illinois before finishing the season at home against disappointing Minnesota (97th). 

Weird things happen on the road, but it’s hard to see the Badgers or Fighting Illini coming through for Ohio State. 

Michigan State has three road games left, but two of them area against aforementioned Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also get a visit from Illinois, where neither new coach Brad Underwood nor Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork has provided much of a lift this season.  

The biggest challenge left for Tom Izzo’s team comes Saturday at Northwestern. The Wildcats are ranked No. 77 and don’t appear to have gotten over the hangover from their first Big Dance appearance last season. 

The good news for Ohio State: It controls its destiny. 

This is a position no one expected the Buckeyes to be in — and it’s always better to have something to lose than nothing, right?... 

Meanwhile, things promise to pick up elsewhere in sports today because baseball players are reporting for spring training. 

That includes the Cincinnati Reds, who are setting up shop in Arizona for what they hope is the last season of a rebuild that has probably been more painful than it had to be because of how long they waited to really get it started. 

MLB.com has released a projected Opening Day roster that is hard to quibble with at this point. 

Of note: 

Mark Sheldon picks Sal Romano as the fifth starter. 

I would like to see Brandon Finnegan in the bullpen with Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson in the rotation. 

As far as other pitching prospects, I’m excited about Tyler Mahle, but he could stand some more seasoning rather than having to learn at the top level like so many of these guys have. Same with Romano. 

Sheldon also notes Dilson Herrera is out of options. 

That’s another reason to be sure Nick Senzel won’t make the club unless an infielder is hurt. 

As of today, I’m thinking the best chance to see Senzel soon is Jose Peraza struggling again through April, but maybe he gets an early-summer shot at second base if Scooter Gennett doesn’t have the same magic. 

The vibes I get from various offseason interviews lead me to believe the team knows it can’t be too complacent. The Reds need to show a lot of improvement this season, preferably early on, to keep the fanbase interested. 

That doesn’t mean making any crazy moves, but pulling a lever like calling up Senzel could be something. 

I tend to think Bryan Price should be on a short leash, too. He did a great job with the pitching staff and is an interesting and thoughtful interview, but he still has no track record of success as a manager to fall back on if things go south. 

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