On December 1, Big Ten play began. At that point in time, Ohio State was ranked 75th on KenPom, and most people expected the Buckeyes to be an afterthought in the league.
Right now, they’re 8-0 and just outside the KenPom top 10.
But why is Ohio State playing so well? If you watch Big Ten games, eventually you’ll hear analysts tell you that Purdue is very efficient from behind the arc, that Michigan State’s 2-point defense is unworldly, and Beilein has the best defensive squad he’s had since arriving in Ann Arbor.
And you’ll hear that Keita Bates-Diop is really good.
Now, Keita Bates-Diop is really good. Like top 5 in the KenPom Player of the Year rankings good. Good enough that if he trademarked his name and charged a royalty every time Dan Dakich mentioned him on another team’s broadcast, he could retire to a private island before ever playing a minute in the NBA.
But this is not a Trae Young at Oklahoma situation where one player is all you need to know about a team. Oklahoma is not going to win the Big 12. Ohio State just might win the Big Ten. Let’s see what the numbers say about the Buckeyes as a team.
The first thing that stands out is balance. Of the eighteen metrics that roll up into the overall efficiency ratings, Ohio State is not in the national top 25 in any of them. This is in contrast to the other top teams in the league, who all have at least one area of particular strength. Ohio State’s best category is offensive block percentage, where they rank No. 27. But Ohio State is not winning games because they don’t get their shots blocked.
The Buckeyes are winning games because of the 18 categories, they are above the national average in all but one of them. The Buckeyes do not do a great job of getting to the foul line. Other than that, there are no glaring weaknesses.
KenPom says that Ohio State’s defense is better than its offense. The main reason for that is their excellent defensive rebounding. A team comes up with an offensive rebound after a miss about 29% of the time. Against Ohio State, that number is 25%. That 4% difference may not seem like a lot, but it’s an extra 3 possessions where Ohio State’s opponents don’t get easy put-back or kick-out opportunities. That’s worth about 5 points a game.
Or to put it this way, if Ohio State was an average defensive rebounding team, they would be fringe top 40 on KenPom rather than fringe top 10.
Another thing that stands out if you look at the Buckeyes is that 54.3% of their points are coming on twos, as opposed to threes or free throws. Nationally, that’s not particularly unusual (the D-I average is about 49.6%), but if you’re comparing against the other teams at the top of the Big Ten, it’s very unusual. Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan will all beat you from behind the arc much more than the Buckeyes will.
That’s not to say the Buckeyes lack good outside shooters, though. CJ Jackson, Kam Williams, and Andrew Dakich are all shooting above 40%. Dakich is actually above 60%, though the senior transfer from Michigan has shot fewer than 20 on the year.
Speaking of Andrew Dakich, it’s time we should point something out. This has nothing to do with statistics, computers, data, efficiency, or Ken Pomeroy. It’s just one of those strange things that can happen in sports at times. But if you’re an Ohio State fan, it’s something that should give you hope.
In 2015-16, Max Bielfeldt transferred from Michigan to Indiana. Indiana won the Big Ten that year.
In 2016-17, Spike Albrecht tranferred from Michigan to Purdue. Purdue won the Big Ten that year.
In 2017-18, Andrew Dakich transferred from Michigan to Ohio State. Ohio State is 8-0 in the Big Ten right now.
So here’s what the case for the Buckeyes as Big Ten champions looks like:
- Keita Bates-Diop is really, really good. (Which everyone knows.)
- The Buckeyes are balanced and are a good defensive rebounding team. They don’t rely heavily on the 3-point shot, which makes them less susceptible to bad shooting nights.
- They have a graduate transfer from Michigan on their roster.
The bad news is they still have to play at Purdue and at Michigan. But other than those games, the most difficult on the schedule for the Buckeyes is at Indiana, and KenPom gives them a 75% chance of winning that game.
Let’s take a closer look at KenPom projections. Here are the records each of the top four teams are expected to finish with:
- Purdue 17-1
- Ohio State 15-3
- Michigan State 14-4
- Michigan 11-7
My rule of thumb is to never doubt KenPom, but there are two reasons you might adjust your expectations rather than trusting the computers blindly.
First, you might move a team down if there have been injuries or suspensions. A textbook example is Minnesota. The computers still had Minnesota at No. 43 when Amir Coffey got hurt and Reggie Lynch got kicked off the team. At that point, the Gophers were still expected to have a winning record in the league. At this point, they are not.
Second, a team might be underrated based on bad preseason expectations. If a team has steadily been rising, it’s a sign that the computers are catching up to reality. Usually this rule of thumb only applies in November and December. By mid-January, things are usually pretty stable.
But the Buckeyes were unreasonably bad last year, which depressed their starting ranking. And after every single conference game this year, their ranking has improved. They are at least the 11th best team in the country right now. They could be better.
A lot of people overreacted to Ohio State’s decisive win over Michigan State on January 7. And as a numbers guy, your gut instinct is to never rely too heavily on the results of one game. Surely the Buckeyes aren’t actually as good as they showed against Michigan State?
Maybe not, but they’re damn good. Since then all they’ve done is go from No. 37 to No. 11. They might not be done yet.