Behind the Numbers: The Buckeyes Are ReadyPosted by KCarpenter on January 5th, 2011
Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.
(ed. note: this article was prepared and written prior to Ohio State’s Tuesday night win over Iowa)
When is the appropriate time to start talking seriously about which team is going to win it all? I know that everyone wants to hear predictions before a single game is played and that can be a fun exercise, but how often does it yield any actual insight? Pre-season polls have their place and wiser minds than mine find at least one pre-season poll very useful and interesting. That said, polls and summer hype can lead to some pretty silly results, as pre-season First Team All-American Harrison Barnes is happy to remind you. So when do we know that a team is win-it-all-good? After they blow out a bunch of cupcakes? After a strong showing in a pre-conference tournament? Do they need to have beaten at least one tough, quality opponent? Do we need to wait for conference play to start? For it to be halfway through? To end? Should we even bother making predictions at all? Of course,we should: predictions are fun and if we make them too early, who cares? If predictions were always right they wouldn’t be fun. So, in that spirit, it’s time that we start talking about how good Ohio State is.
But, wait: wasn’t everybody already talking about how good Ohio State is? Well, yeah. Rush the Court, the AP, and ESPN/USA all think that Ohio State is the second best team in the country behind also-undefeated and still-rolling Duke. That said, they may be better. The electronic seers that Ken Pomeroy has captured and employed now seem to think that Ohio State is the best team in the country, and looking at some of the numbers, I can’t help but nod my head and praise the wisdom of our future robot overlords.
Ohio State has the third most efficient offense in the country and easily the most efficient defense. How good is the defense? The current mark is better than any team, ever, since Mr. Pomeroy started crunching adjusted defensive efficiencies in 2003. They have been, so far, amazing on that end. Thad Matta’s team seemingly never fouls and barely ever sends their opponent to the line, actually leading the sport of college basketball in this category. They force turnovers at a hellacious rate (27.4%, 3rd in the country) and that same gritty defense has held their opponents to 45.3% effective field goal shooting. They are among the best in the country at securing defensive rebounds, thereby limiting opponents’ second-chance opportunities. This is not a forgiving defense.
On offense, the Buckeyes are devastating as well. Looking to keep the national player of the year crown in Ohio, Jared Sullinger has been a force of nature. He shoots the ball at a very efficient clip, he rebounds effectively on both ends, gets to the foul line and rarely turns the ball ever. The ridiculous numbers he’s been putting up aren’t a function of him taking a ton of shots or the team playing at a fast pace (Ohio State, unsurprisingly for a team in the Big Ten, plays at a pretty pokey speed). The ridiculous numbers Sullinger has been putting up are mostly a function of Sullinger actually being ridiculous. He’s not alone either. Jon Diebler is having the most efficient season of anyone in college basketball on the offensive end. He isn’t shooting a lot, but when he shoots, the ball goes through the hoop. Right now, Diebler is maintaining an other-worldly 74.6% true shooting mark, largely driven by his 51.2% three-point shooting. This isn’t a small sample size fluke either: Diebler has already taken 86 threes this season. Outside of Sullinger and Diebler, the Buckeyes have plenty of quality offensive options. William Buford, Aaron Craft and David Lighty are all strong playmakers and skilled shooters making the entirety of the starting lineup potentially dangerous. Freshman Deshaun Thomas has been a pleasant surprise, providing outstanding offensive rebounding from the bench. When a team can surround the likely national player of the year with such an effective arsenal of weapons, what else can be done?
Ohio State’s offense is just hard to stop: they shoot the ball well, they offensively rebound well, and they barely ever turn over the ball. The only thing that the Buckeyes don’t do at an elite level is get to the free throw line consistently as a team, though individually Jared Sullinger is one of the very best in the country at doing that. For perspective, his free throw rate of 71.3 puts him at the line at a better rate than Tyler Hansbrough during his championship season of 2008-09. He lives there, even if the team doesn’t, making this weakness only seem like a flaw compared to all of this team’s other strengths.
A lot of the credit obviously goes to the talented lineup, but much is owed to Thad Matta, who has proven himself a smart and adaptable coach. For example, Ohio State is only holding their opponents to an eFG% of 45.3%, which is actually slightly worse than Houston, Michigan and Utah State. Yet Ohio State’s defense is, overall, much better than all of those teams because of a calculated insistence on winning every other part of the efficiency war. By emphasizing not fouling, the Buckeyes don’t give up a lot of points at the free throw line. By emphasizing securing defensive rebounds over fast break points, the Buckeyes don’t give up many second-chance buckets. By emphasizing ball-hawking defense, the Buckeyes end up with more possessions. Matta has tweaked his team’s style and strategy to best match the capabilities of his players. Last year, the Buckeyes played a lot of zone; this year, they are playing gritty man-to-man. Last year, Ohio State rarely went for offensive rebounds, and this year, Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Dallas Lauderdale are having great years on the offensive glass. These tweaks in philosophy have taken Ohio State to the next level.
Now, this is not a perfect team. They don’t have incredible size in their frontcourt, rely heavily on freshmen (albeit talented ones), and probably don’t play the bench enough. The best team they have beaten so far is probably Florida State. That said, when Duke and Kansas are making big runs in ACC and Big 12, it would serve us to remember how good we know Ohio State can be. The top of the Big Ten is monstrously tough this year, and I don’t expect Ohio State to go undefeated. That said, here is my prediction, delivered probably too early and with too many assumptions: Ohio State will still be playing basketball in April, and they will be winning.