Ohio State will enter the Big Ten portion of its schedule sporting an 11-2 record after knocking off a severely overmatched Wright State team, 100-55, on Saturday night in Columbus. This season's Buckeyes have a very different look from years past, most notably in regards to shooting ability (Woo!) and rolling out a zone defense (Boo!). But thirteen games into the season, fans of the scarlet and grey still don't know exactly what kind of team they have. With conference play getting underway for Thad Matta's squad on Tuesday, has Ohio State proven it can contend for a Big Ten crown?
Dropping the Big Ones
As I wrote about last week, the Buckeyes did not do themselves any favors in their two marquee non-conference matchups. While losses to Louisville and North Carolina are nothing to be ashamed of, the way the team lost is a concern. In both cases, Ohio State seemed intimidated by the moment, fell behind big early, and needed furious comebacks to make the final scores a little more respectable. Both the Cardinals and Tar Heels are ranked in the top 10 according to Ken Pomeroy, so the grit and determination the Buckeyes showed in not getting run out of the gym is something positive to build on. But losses are still losses.
Aside from those two games, Ohio State has not faced an opponent in KenPom's top 100. Marquette (107th), Wright State (139th), and High Point (149th) are the only ones in the top 150. The Big Ten, meanwhile, has seven teams in the top 50 (not including the Buckeyes, who rank 12th) and only two (Northwestern and Rutgers) outside the top 100. The cupcake schedule that Ohio State dominated is nowhere near on a par with the caliber of opponents it will face night in and night out in conference play.
The first six Big Ten games for the Buckeyes could set the tone for the rest of the season. Matchups with Iowa (twice), Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan will provide a solid indication of just what kind of team this really is.
Here is where Ohio State ranks nationally (prior to the Wright State game) in a number of offensive statistical categories:
|Points Per Game
|Assists Per Game
|3-Point FG %
Given the production on the scoring end for the Buckeyes the past couple of seasons, numbers like these make the team look like a juggernaut. The question is whether the team will be able to sustain anywhere close to this level of production against better, more physical competition. I'll be keeping an eye on the freshmen, in particular, to see if any of the four newcomers in the rotation hit the wall.
"As I told these guys after the game, you finished preseason 11-2," Matta said after the victory over Wright State. "We were able to get guys good minutes, we saw a lot of good things out of guys. Now, that has to be the norm. There may be nights where guys might not shoot as well, but they have to pick themselves up and get ready to go again. Mental toughness becomes such a part of this."
Vets' Final Act
I'd be lying if I said that the play of Ohio State's seniors hasn't disappointed me quite a bit. A group that was highly-touted when they arrived in Columbus and has played in big games before has largely disappeared when it has mattered most for the Buckeyes this season. Particularly in the loss at Louisville, Matta's veterans have had all of the telltale signs of being a bust as a class. In order to salvage their reputation, the five players in their final college season must step it up in conference play.
Shannon Scott, who I had very high hopes for this season, is among the nation's leaders in assists and steals, but his shooting has regressed and his decision-making has been suspect at times. While being one of the undisputed leaders of the team, Scott must improve his performance in a hurry. If he fails to do so, expect freshman D'Angelo Russell to take on even more of the ball-handling responsibilities, and for redshirt frosh Kam Williams to see an uptick in minutes.
Fellow senior leader Sam Thompson has also failed to make a significant jump in his game. While the high-flying Chicago native is among the Buckeyes' leaders in scoring numbers, his inconsistency shooting the ball from range (and his insistence on continuing to hoist when nothing is falling) and disappointing rebounding numbers begs the question of whether or not he's reached his ceiling. Finishing the non-conference schedule with a solid 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks against Wright State while not forcing shots (2 points on just 1-3 shooting) is an encouraging sign for Thompson to build off of as a player Ohio State needs to do all of the little things to win, even when the scoring isn't there.
Which brings us to the guys in the paint. I wrote about the "three-headed monster" of big men that Matta has to work with last week, and wasn't exactly complimentary. So, of course, they immediately went out and gave their strongest performance of the season thus far on Saturday night. While Anthony Lee sat out with an ankle sprain, Amir Williams dominated the paint from start to finish against the Raiders, setting a career-high with 21 points while grabbing 7 boards and blocking 4 shots.
"He has shown throughout his career here that when he has some bounce in his step is when he plays his best basketball," Matta said after the game. "Hopefully we can continue to ride the wave with him."
Trey McDonald gave good energy as well, scoring 6 points, grabbing 2 boards, and swatting 2 shots of his own.
If the Buckeyes are to be a factor in the Big Ten as the calendar page turns, the seniors, especially the bigs, are going to have to find a way to consistently impact the game on both ends of the floor.
While the Buckeyes' veterans have largely struggled this season, the underclassmen have been nothing short of a godsend. Ohio State's top three scorers are in their first or second collegiate seasons, as Russell (17.7 ppg), sophomore Marc Loving (12.4 ppg), and Williams (10.2 ppg) have helped give the team needed scoring punch. Add in Jae'Sean Tate being second on the team in rebounding (4.8 rpg) and the improved play the past couple of weeks by Keita Bates-Diop, and the youngsters have been more than carrying their weight.
Matta is no stranger to getting big contributions from freshmen, with the likes of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Kosta Koufas, Byron Mullens, and Jared Sullinger having helped carry their respective teams in the scarlet and grey. Russell may well be the best of that group, and with his draft stock soaring higher and higher seemingly every week, it will be one of Ohio State's most interesting storylines going forward to see how the lefty sharpshooter handles the pressure of being the Buckeyes' go-to offensive option.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Russell said of starting conference ball. "I can't say I know what to expect, so I'm just going to try to prepare the best way I can."
Judging by the way the non-conference schedule went, Ohio State will need its freshmen to acclimate themselves to the more rugged style of play in the Big Ten quickly if the Buckeyes hope to have a say in how the conference shakes out this season.
Ready or not, Ohio State tips off Big Ten play at home on Tuesday against the Hawkeyes. After having their weaknesses exposed in ridiculous fashion during conference play a season ago, the Buckeyes are looking to rebound and be a factor in how the Big Ten is won. With the non-conference schedule in the rearview, Matta and his team still seem to have more questions than answers. Will the senior class finally step up? Can the freshmen maintain their entertaining pace? Where will the Buckeyes find themselves when the dust settles in March?
"I honestly like where we are," Matta said. "And I've said this, I've never gone into a Big Ten game thinking we're going to win the game. You have to go out there and earn them."
On Tuesday, we'll start to find out if Ohio State can do just that. I, for one, can't wait to see how this team will respond.