Ohio State is not known for scheduling tough non-conference games. In fact the opposite is true. Per Ken Pomeroy, the last three years have seen the Buckeyes play the 328nd, 282nd, and 280th most-challenging non-conference schedules. In other words, Thad Matta typically gives his team a chance to work out as many kinks as it can before the Big Ten season arrives.
This season, Ohio State does not have that luxury. After losing the incredible talent of D'Angelo Russell and the solid play of Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, Matta will have to get all the new faces on his roster to mesh while also facing some pretty stern competition.
Let's take a look at what the three biggest non-conference games should be for the Buckeyes, chronologically.
#1: vs Virginia, December 1
This is one of the marquee games of what promises to be another entertaining ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Both Ohio State and Virginia lost their most important player from last season; while Ohio State lost Russell, Virginia lost Justin Anderson to the draft. Although Anderson was only second on the Cavaliers in scoring, he was an indispensable part of Virginia's offense. When he missed eight games due to a fractured finger and an appendectomy, Virginia looked completely listless. With Anderson now in the NBA, Virginia is trying to figure out who is going to lead its offense.
But the one thing that remains consistent is Virginia's defense. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, London Perrantes, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte headline a defense that might be the best in the country yet again. Marc Loving, Austin Grandstaff, and the rest of the Buckeyes' shooters are going to have to make a lot of tough shots if Ohio State is going to pull off the upset.
#2: at Connecticut, December 12
It seems so long ago that Shabazz Napier was leading UConn to a national championship, when it was really just two seasons ago. Despite last season's disappointing campaign, the Huskies are still a very dangerous team. The perimeter trio of Jalen Adams, Rodney Purvis, and graduate transfer Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall) will be a handful for the Buckeyes, and shot-blocker Amida Brimah will make it difficult for Ohio State to score in the paint. Of the three games I'm highlighting in this article, this one is obviously the most winnable. However, it will take a big effort from Ohio State's perimeter defense for the Buckeyes to leave Connecticut with a victory.
#3: vs Kentucky (Neutral), December 19
At this point, not much more needs to be said about John Calipari's "Evil Empire" at Kentucky. With all the talent on both of these rosters, there figures to be some great individual matchups. In the post, highly-touted freshmen Skal Labissiere and Daniel Giddens will square off; the point guard battle between Tyler Ulis and JaQuan Lyle should be just as dynamic.
It's pretty beneficial for Ohio State to play Kentucky so late in the non-conference schedule. Besides the two previously mentioned games, the Buckeyes will also have faced Memphis and Louisiana Tech by the time this game rolls around. There is little chance of Ohio State being overwhelmed (like Kansas was against Kentucky in last season's Champions Classic), especially since the young Buckeyes will have already seen an elite defense in Virginia. This is not to say that Ohio State will definitely pull off the upset, but Kentucky will have its hands full. This is the last big non-conference test for Ohio State, and I expect the Buckeyes will put forth their most complete effort of the non-conference season.
With the exception of Russell, Ohio State largely underachieved in Big Ten play a season ago. Part of that can be attributed to a soft non-conference slate, as the Buckeyes were under-prepared for the grind of the Big Ten. With a much tougher schedule of non-conference opponents this year, I would not be surprised if Ohio State turns into a contender for the Big Ten title.