It is officially Christmas for college basketball fans now that the almighty NCAA tournament bracket has been released. If the regular season was any indication, 54 teams are going to lose in the first round, but that also means the championship race is wide open.
It is certainly feasible that a squad like the No. 2 seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in the West Region could get hot for a month and take home the national title.
However, if the Buckeyes are going to win the whole thing, absolutely everything has to break the right way. Thad Matta’s squad is immensely talented, but probably not talented enough to overcome any facet of its overall game not clicking.
Read on to see the Buckeyes' blueprint for the national title.
The defense is Ohio State’s bread and butter, and it has to anchor the team through all six rounds if a championship is to occur.
Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott were both named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team, and they combine for nearly four steals a game. Were it not for the overwhelming perimeter pressure of the two guards, the Buckeyes never would have gotten monumental victories over the likes of Michigan State or Indiana.
While Craft and Scott are both defensive wizards and probably the ultimate key to determining how far the Buckeyes advance, don’t overlook what Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson can do with their length and athleticism in terms of bothering opposing guards and forwards. Even Deshaun Thomas is playing better defense lately, and Evan Ravenel was clutch against the likes of Cody Zeller and Derrick Nix.
Defense is Ohio State’s one overwhelming strength, and teams don’t win national championships if they don’t take advantage of their primary strengths. The Buckeyes absolutely have to.
When it comes to the Buckeyes’ offense, the theme of the year has been where will the scoring come from beyond Deshaun Thomas’ Big Ten leading 20 points a contest.
Nevertheless, this team isn’t going to win the national title if Thomas isn’t hitting his shots because he is the one player capable of carrying the Bucks throughout multiple rounds on the offensive side.
Thomas is a matchup nightmare and can hit three, post up or drive the lane, but he will need to be able to pass out from double teams because will see them in the tournament. Of course, he is also going to need some help over six games and an entire month of hoops, but he is the one guy that will truly scare opposing defenses.
Shot selection will be crucial for Thomas. His shooting percentages dipped a bit as Big Ten play continued, partially because of strong defense but also because he settled for too many off-balance jump shots. That can’t be the case in the NCAA tournament.
A primary reason why Ohio State finished the season so strongly was the offensive production that Deshaun Thomas’ supporting cast provided in monumental wins over the best the Big Ten had to offer.
Aaron Craft carried the Buckeyes in Bloomington and against Michigan State with his penetrating abilities and acrobatic shots at the end of the shot clock. He seems to have accepted his shortcomings on offense (think perimeter shots) and started to take advantage of what he does well.
It would also help Thad Matta if he got something from the post from Evan Ravenel, as he did in games against Indiana and the Spartans. For as frustrating as Amir Williams has been this season, Ravenel has improved over the course of the year. That improvement has to continue.
Furthermore, somebody from the group of Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott must contribute consistently in the scoring department as well. Each has done so at times this year, and it is important that at least two of them are hitting shots in the tournament.
There is not a more physical league in the country than the Big Ten, and Ohio State knows that. Many plays that are not called fouls when bruising Midwest heavyweights such as Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin are lining up on the other side will be whistled in the NCAA tournament.
With the games tightening up, the Buckeyes will likely find themselves on the free throw stripe much more often than they are accustomed to.
There is a reason they call them free throws. The Scarlet and Gray will have to take advantage of these easy scoring opportunities because the contests in the later rounds will absolutely come down to the wire.
Even with Deshaun Thomas, who leads the Big Ten in free-throw percentage, and Aaron Craft, Ohio State only shoots slightly better than 69 percent from the line as a team, so free throws haven’t always been automatic. They need to be in the tournament.
Ohio State’s bread and butter this season has been its pressure defense, especially on the perimeter. Ball hawks Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott have carried the Buckeyes at times based on turnover creation alone.
Big Ten teams are used to Ohio State’s pressure, or at least as used to it as one can be, but squads from other conferences are not. Craft, Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson need to jump all over their opponents the second they throw the ball in bounds. The more miserable the Buckeyes can make the lives of their opponents, the more likely they are to win the national title.
At the same time, Ohio State cannot turn it over themselves when it has the ball. As is, the half-court offense, which is what tournament games often come down to, is not particularly efficient. Turnovers would make it even more problematic.
Of course, if the Buckeyes create turnovers themselves it could lead to easy transition baskets, which would render the half-court offense irrelevant.
Ohio State was rewarded for its excellent season and Big Ten tournament championship with the No. 2 seed in the West Region. No region is easy by any stretch of the imagination, but subjectively the Buckeyes have a realistic chance to make the Final Four.
Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the region, and the Bulldogs had a terrific year but also did not play a difficult schedule. Illinois from the Big Ten also went into Spokane and handed the Zags a loss, so the Buckeyes have a blueprint from a fellow conference mate.
Don't overlook potential early matchups against the likes of Notre Dame, Iowa State and New Mexico either. The Lobos were champions in a loaded Mountain West conference and could give Ohio State fits with their size and style of play.
The Buckeyes have a decent chance to emerge from the West Region (which they obviously must in order to win the national title), but it will take their A game in all facets.