Following Ohio State's 82-74 loss to North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago, the Buckeyes have fallen to 0-2 in their marquee non-conference games. Both the loss to the Tar Heels and to Louisville in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge followed similar patterns and shed light on some of the team's weaknesses. With the conference schedule set to tip-off in just nine days, head coach Thad Matta's squad has a few areas to address to prevent a replay of last season's disappointments.
Slow Starts in Big Spots
Too often throughout the non-conference slate, the Buckeyes have seemed to lack energy and intensity. While slow starts and listless play may not be lethal against the likes of James Madison and Morehead State, they absolutely killed Ohio State in its two biggest games.
Against Louisville, the Buckeyes trailed by as many as 19 points, and found themselves down by 17 at the half. Similarly, a 16-point deficit at the half to the Tar Heels put Ohio State's back against the wall. In both cases, the team seemed overwhelmed by the moment, and allowed the opposition to dictate the pace of the game.
"We've got to look ourselves in the mirror and say, hey, we're not there yet, which is fine," Matta said after Saturday's defeat. "But we've got to look at all the little things that we have to do to get better and get that established."
Poor Shooting in Pressure Situations
Ohio State entered Saturday's game third in the country in team field goal percentage, hitting over 53 percent of its shots from the floor through the season's first ten games. That ranking is going to take a tumble after the Buckeyes knocked down just 35 percent against North Carolina, often taking questionable shots. At one point in the second half while furiously trying to make a comeback, Ohio State went over seven minutes without a field goal.
At Louisville, the team shot even worse, making just over 30 percent from the floor. As has become apparent in the early going of the season, the Buckeyes are going to go as far as freshman D'Angelo Russell can take them, and in both of these games he struggled. After a 6-20 night shooting against the Cardinals, Russell made a mere 4-17 on Saturday.
"Every shot we took, there was never a bad shot," Russell said after the Louisville game. "We just couldn't knock them down. I feel like if we would have knocked them down, we would have won by 20."
The 6'5" newcomer has helped Ohio State come back in both games, though, by effecting other facets of the game when the shots aren't falling. After tallying 6 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals against the Cardinals, Russell grabbed 8 boards, dished out 5 assists, and had 3 thefts against the Tar Heels.
The Zone is a Work In Progress
I'm not going to say much about a certain CBS in-studio analyst's assessment of Ohio State's defense, other than to say Rome wasn't built in a day. The zone isn't going anywhere, Buckeye fans, so get used to it.
The line for the Buckeyes' three-man post rotation of Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and Anthony Lee against North Carolina was not pretty: 4 points and 8 rebounds combined in 37 minutes on the floor. Kennedy Meeks completely dominated the offensive glass and points in the paint, much the same way that Montrezl Harrell did for Louisville. The Tar Heels outscored the Buckeyes 34-20 in the paint, had 19 offensive rebounds, and took advantage with 16 second chance points.
"We need more production out of those guys," Matta said of his bigs after the game.
None of this is particularly surprising. Rebounding out of a zone is more difficult, as it is tougher to put a body on a body under the hoop. But Williams, McDonald, and Lee simply must produce more for the Buckeyes if they hope to contend in the Big Ten. I'd hate to have to agree with a certain CBS in-studio analyst.
My goodness, Ohio State is soft inside...— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) December 20, 2014
Never Say Die
Not all is fire and brimstone for the scarlet and grey. While the sluggish starts, poor shooting, and rebounding deficiencies have dug Ohio State a couple of big holes against top tier opponents, the team has shown resiliency and grittiness in fighting their way back into both games. The Buckeyes could easily have packed it in at halftime in both of these contests and been run out of the gym in the second half. Instead, the team's intensity seemed to ratchet up, defensive pressure increased, and turning the opposition over led to transition offense.
"You can say it was a positive that we were scrapping and clawing back into it," Matta said. "But we've got to figure out why we're getting in that position."
Ohio State took a blowout at Louisville and climbed back to within four points late in the game, and trimmed North Carolina's lead down to as little as seven. While there is no such thing as a moral victory for a program like Ohio State, Matta has to be encouraged by the fight his team has shown with its back against the wall. The battles coming in the Big Ten won't be won without it.
"Knowing that it's, I don't want to say it's early, but it's still December," Matta said. "We've got January, February, March still to play basketball. How much better can we get in that time?"
The Buckeyes take the floor again on Monday at home against the Miami University Redhawks. The game tips off at 6 p.m. ET, and can be watched on Big Ten Network.