Ohio State has been a difficult team to understand. Is it the team that was ranked No. 2 for five weeks and gave Duke a 22-point whipping? Is it the team that struggled down the stretch of the regular season, dropping three-out-of-seven? Is it the team that charged to the Big Ten title game and lost a hard-fought game to Michigan State?
Ohio State (27-7, 13-5 Big Ten) grabbed the No. 2 seed in the East bracket of the NCAA tournament, but this is no gift. The Buckeyes will be tested early and often.
Ohio State will need to pass through a battle tested field of teams looking to continue their late-season success. Big East regular season champion Syracuse sits atop the East bracket as the second overall seed. Other potential match-ups could be Vanderbilt, which took out Kentucky on Sunday to win the SEC Tournament and Florida State, which not only beat North Carolina to win the ACC title on Saturday, but became the first time since Georgia Tech in 1996 to beat North Carolina and Duke twice in the same season.
While other teams, such as Syracuse, are looking to work out the kinks, Ohio State has struggled to discover exactly which problems need to be addressed. It’s not that the Buckeyes are a bad team. Of its seven losses this season, Illinois was the only unranked team to defeat the Buckeyes. But a closer look at Ohio State reveals some flaws which could be exposed as fatal and will most likely mean doom for the Columbus school.
Perhaps the Buckeyes can catch fire and make me look a fool, but it's unlikely.
Freshman LaQuinton Ross
The majority of Ohio State’s offense comes from three sources: Jared Sullinger, (17.6 ppg) Deshaun Thomas (15.4 ppg) and William Buford (14.7 ppg). Aaron craft adds 8.6 ppg, but his true contribution is on the defensive end where he is one of the premier defensive guards in the country.
Lenzelle Smith, Jr. rounds out the main five contributors as far as minutes go, but then there is a significant drop off.
Compare this to Gonzaga, which has nine players who average over 13 minutes per game, Florida State which has nine players who get over 16 minutes of court time and Syracuse, a team renowned for its depth.
Ohio State’s starters have logged most of the minutes this season and without a capable bench to fill in when needed, the Buckeyes could be a few foul calls on Jared Sullinger away from big trouble. A physical battle with West Virginia or Cincinnati could spell doom.
The departure of Jon Diebler and David Lighty took away two of Ohio State’s three-point snipers from last season. While teams would double Sullinger on the block, Diebler and Lighty, 50 and 43 percent three-point shooters respectively, served as daggers from the outside.
Without them, Ohio State has attempted over 200 fewer three-point shots and made over 120 fewer. This significant difference allows teams to aggressively clog the box without fear of getting shot over.
A team such as Syracuse, or any team with a little height, could deny the ball inside and make for a nightmare game for the Buckeyes. This isn't necessarily the recipe to beat Ohio State, as they've been able to overcome this for the most part, but the teams in the East have the size to match up with Ohio State, which should force the Buckeyes to make shots to spread the defense.
Otherwise, there will be trouble.
Speaking of three-point shooting, the Buckeyes went from being the best three-point shooting team in the country last year to being one of the worst, ranking in bottom of the 200s.
William Buford has regressed from being a .442 three-point shooter to .364. Jared Sullinger, who attempted 12 threes last year and only made three, is this year’s leader for Ohio State shooting at .394.
Just looking at Sunday’s game against Michigan State, the Spartans were able to get back in the game from outside the arc while Ohio State’s pitiful 4-of-17 three-point shooting did them in.
Ohio State will not survive with this type of effort in the tournament. This is not so much because they can’t make up for the threes down low, but because all the misses create long rebounds, which allows opponents to get out on the break and neutralizes Ohio State’s size and rebounding ability.
Jared Sullinger is a fantastic sophomore. There’s no doubt he will be a lottery pick in the NBA draft and he has ability around the rim akin to Kevin McHale. Well, maybe not quite McHale, but he’s pretty darn good.
This is why it’s perplexing that Sullinger seems to have taken a step backwards. I am in no way saying that Sullinger is not still all-world, I’m saying that something is different.
From a pure numbers standpoint, scoring is roughly the same, but it’s the intangibles that have taken a little bit of a dip. He’s committing more fouls per game (2.4 to 2.9 per game), more turnovers (1.6 to 2.0 per game) and he's rebounding less (10.2 to 9.3 per game).
The numbers aren’t hugely significant, but together they paint a picture of a young man who is still stellar, but hasn’t improved greatly. Anyone of a handful of things could explain it. He’s dropped about 25 pounds from last year, so perhaps his missing bulk is affecting his dominance in the paint. The poor three-point shooting could be a factor in less rebounds and attempts to drive the ball to get him into foul trouble could take away some of his ferocity.
During a particularly bad stretch at the end of the season, Ohio State went 2-3, losing games to Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin and barely pulling out a two-point win against Northwestern. During that stretch, Sullinger’s output decreased from 17.5 points per game to 14.2 and he even had two games in which he didn’t get double-digits. Against Michigan State he committed ten turnovers. Thankfully for Ohio State, his scoring and rebounding made up for his carelessness with the ball and the Buckeyes pulled out a win, but lapses such as this do not go unpunished in the tournament.
Ohio State has kept it together amid an up and down season, but whispers are in the wind of some discord in the locker room.
After a loss to Wisconsin, Thad Matta admitted that he threw the Buckeyes out of practice the day before for lack of focus. Their change in offense from a team that could kill you from the outside to a team that has to manufacture baskets has had them searching for an identity.
Buford has attempted to take more of a leadership role on this team, but his sometimes-awful play has been perplexing and hardly a characteristic of a leader.
No one other than the players and coaches know exactly what is going on in the locker room, but Matta reaching a point of throwing his players out of practice is a definite red flag.