Welcome back to the party that is the Big Ten title race, Ohio State.
After being left for dead following a shellacking at Illinois, the Buckeyes bounced back last week with two impressive victories. They gutted one out at Purdue and then jumped out to a huge lead against Michigan and hung on for dear life until the final buzzer sounded.
However, things are just going to get more difficult for the three-time defending Big Ten champions. The conference is absolutely loaded, and the ultimate winner will likely have anywhere from three to five league losses.
Read on to see the five biggest potholes standing between Ohio State and a fourth straight championship as Big Ten play heats up.
Consistently winning on the road in the Big Ten this season is going to be a Herculean task, even for some of the best teams in the country like Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan.
If you need proof of that, consider the fact that Ohio State was actually favored in its last game against the Wolverines, despite the fact Michigan was the nation’s only undefeated team and the Buckeyes had dropped each of their three contests against quality competition.
Unfortunately for Thad Matta’s squad, the road map to a Big Ten title is loaded with booby traps in some of the country’s loudest and most intimidating arenas.
A trip to East Lansing awaits Ohio State Saturday. Games at Michigan, at Wisconsin and at Indiana all occur within one month of each other as well. Consider it a blessing that the Buckeyes don’t have to go to the Barn to take on the Gophers.
Clearly the eventual conference champion will not go undefeated on the road, but Ohio State can’t afford to drop too many of these games if it has any hopes of winning the title.
Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott both have impressive assist-to-turnover ratios. In fact, Scott’s is better than 4:1, so don’t assume that by bringing up turnovers I am specifically pointing to the two point guards.
Nevertheless, there are six Buckeyes that average more than one turnover per game, and that number stretches to eight if you include the two that are at .9 per game.
The guards that always handle the ball are going to have some turnovers every night, but to have this many players with issues handling the ball may be a problem down the stretch. LaQuinton Ross leads the squad in turnovers per game, and he only sees limited minutes every night (an average of 17).
For proof of how the Buckeyes’ turnover issues may come back to haunt them, look no further than the final minute of the Michigan game. Ohio State had a six point lead late and almost choked it away because the Wolverines turned up the pressure on the ball and got easy transition baskets.
You could also look to the 16 turnovers the Bucks had while they were beat down by Illinois for more proof.
It’s difficult enough to win in the Big Ten. Ohio State, which has struggled making shots as it is, can’t afford to blow its opportunities with high turnover numbers.
Ohio State’s rebounding is not particularly terrible, but it is not at a Big Ten championship level either. The Buckeyes rank 54th in the nation in total boards per game, and rebounds were an issue in all three of their losses.
Mason Plumlee dominated the Duke game down low and grabbed 17 boards in the process, five of which were offensive. Kansas also out-rebounded Ohio State in Columbus, and Illinois dominated the glass to the tune of 39-28.
If you think Ohio State had problems with rebounds in those games, just wait until the trip to East Lansing Saturday if things don’t improve.
The Buckeyes have struggled with teams that have a dominating presence down low all year, and, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Jared Sullinger is not coming through that door. We have seen flashes of the potential we keep hearing about in Amir Williams, but he hasn’t been able to seize the center position from Evan Ravenel.
Ravenel gives Thad Matta solid minutes, but he’s never going to dominate a game the way a center from a Big Ten championship team often does.
In an ideal world, Williams will finally deliver on his enticing promise and Ravenel will be able to spell him for large chunks of minutes. But it seems like we are still far from those days.
As Indiana found out this week in its game against Wisconsin, you have to bring it every night in the Big Ten, or else the losses will come.
It’s easy to get up for rivalry games against Michigan or trips to historic Assembly Hall in Indiana, but it is the teams like Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue that are lying in the weeds ready to strike if you are ill-prepared.
Consistent play has been an issue for Ohio State in two ways. For one, it has lacked from game to game. The same team that shut down Michigan’s high-powered offensive attack was run over by Duke's 50 points in the second half, and got steamrolled by Illinois for 40 minutes.
There were even non-conference cupcake games that the Buckeyes seemed to lack interest in, including contests against Rhode Island and Winthrop.
The other consistency front is within games. Ohio State looked like the best team in the country in the first 10 minutes against Michigan, and then almost blew its 21-point lead down the stretch. There were also second half collapses against Duke and Kansas, two games in which the Buckeyes also led.
Thad Matta is going to have to find a way to get his team to play at a high level for 40 minutes every time out, otherwise Ohio State will be looking up at a number of teams in the Big Ten standings in March.
We knew coming into this season that somebody would have to step up outside of Deshaun Thomas to replace the lost production of Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
While Thomas has done his part in the scoring department (he leads the conference in points per game), the rest of the Buckeye crew has been inconsistent at best when it comes to putting the ball in the basket.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if there has been zero production all year. Lenzelle Smith Jr. has some high scoring games under his belt, Aaron Craft carried Ohio State down the stretch at Purdue with clutch basket after clutch basket and even Ross dropped more than 20 against Northern Kentucky.
However, when the Buckeyes get in their half-court sets with the ball, things really start to bog down. For example, Michigan threw a zone at Matta’s squad in the second half, and if Thomas didn’t score the team was basically helpless.
In my opinion, the solution may be to pick up the pace and become more of a fast-break oriented team. That is how the Michigan game started, and before the Wolverines knew what hit them they were staring at a 20-point deficit (Ohio State grabbed a first-half lead against Kansas and Duke this way too).
With Craft, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Ross and Smith the Buckeyes have the athletes to make this work. More scoring would almost certainly be the result.