Ohio State’s Slow Big Ten Start Nothing to Worry AboutPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 17th, 2014
As Ohio State has surely found out, when you are considered a top-10 team and proceed to go out and lose three straight games, eyebrows will be raised. Heck, if the two-time defending NBA champions are going to be questioned for losing three in a row within an 82-game regular season, it’s hardly a shock that pundits will sound the alarm over a three-game Big Ten losing streak. Nevermind that any one of those three losses, in isolation, would be nowhere near concern-prompting, or that the Buckeyes are still owners of the second most efficient defense in all the land. If you listen to anyone outside of Columbus, Thad Matta’s team suddenly has questions to answer. The bleeding does need to stop (and soon), and even the most ardent of Buckeyes’ supporters will admit this team is far from perfectly constructed, but resist overreaction on this one. Today’s Buckeyes are the same team that ran out to that 15-0 start — Big Ten title contenders, still.
There is no sugarcoating this fact: Ohio State is not a good offensive basketball team. Besides an impressively low steal percentage-against (helpful mainly for setting up that lethally efficient halfcourt defense), there is no true strength within its offensive statistical profile. When DeShaun Thomas and his prodigious offensive production departed for the professional ranks last offseason, most suspected the Buckeyes would struggle to score points as a result. There was hope that junior LaQuinton Ross might be ready to assume a good chunk of Thomas’ production, but while Ross is the Bucks’ leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, he has proven not to be another Thomas. Ross has shot the ball well from three-point range (41%), but a higher-than-preferred turnover rate (12.5%), paired with middling percentages on two-point field goals (44%) and from the charity stripe (68%) has left, for Thad Matta and his offensively challenged team, a lot to be desired. While the optimist would suggest Ross has some room for growth here in the back end of the season (he does have the natural tools to make it happen), the realist here will remind you that we aren’t talking about a player five games into his freshman season. To a large extent, Ross likely is what he is; namely, not DeShaun Thomas. With a dearth of offensive options elsewhere on the roster, that reality also means that the Buckeyes won’t be redefining themselves anytime soon. This isn’t, and won’t become, an elite offensive unit.
But nobody ever said you needed to be imitating UNLV, circa 1991, if you want to win a Big Ten title. Just a year ago, Wisconsin was in the regular season title race all the way into the season’s final week, and the Badgers possessed national offensive/defensive efficiency rankings (#108/#1) quite similar to those which the Buckeyes currently own (#96/#2). If defense doesn’t win titles in the Big Ten, I’m not sure where it will. That’s blessed news for the Buckeyes, because they can most certainly defend. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott form the best defensive backcourt in the country, while Amir Williams has proved to be a legitimate shot-blocking presence down low. Just as the Buckeyes won’t soon become an offensive juggernaut, they also won’t cease from offering staunch resistance on the defensive end anytime in the near future. Despite the recent string of losses (which were accompanied by various degrees of offensive success for opponents), this defensive unit is tried-and-true elite.
To refresh, Ohio State lost road games (one in overtime) to, according to KenPom, the 5th and 32nd best teams in the country, and dropped one at home to the 8th best team in the land. EVERYTHING IS OK! The immediate Buckeyes’ schedule also should offer much-needed relief, as a trip to Nebraska is followed by home dates with Illinois and Penn State. If the Buckeyes take care of business over the next two weeks, they would be 5-3 in the league entering a road trip to Wisconsin and Iowa. Dropping that pair of games would likely spell doom for its Big Ten title hopes, but with an 18-game league schedule and obstacles aplenty facing each title contender, there is plenty of time for a Buckeye revival. Don’t forget, the #1 overall seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament lost four Big Ten games. The national runner-up lost six, including three of four during one stretch. The road to a Big Ten title – and beyond – is long and hard. Ohio State may have fallen behind in the early sprint out of the blocks, but winning the marathon is still well within reach.