Ohio State Basketball: Buckeyes' Keys to a 2013-14 Big Ten Title
A perfect nonconference record for the Ohio State basketball team is one thing, but the Buckeyes won’t be satisfied unless they take home Big Ten championship this season.
Thad Matta’s bunch is on the short list of conference title contenders along with Michigan State, Wisconsin and perhaps Iowa, and if the defense continues to play at such an elite level, there could be a run in store come March. However, there are a few things Matta and company will have to take care of if they want to accomplish their goals.
Read on to see Ohio State’s keys to a Big Ten title.
Win Every Home Game
It may be a lot to ask, but if Ohio State wants to win one of the most difficult conferences in the country that is loaded with intimidating venues, it has to take care of business in Columbus.
The Buckeyes don’t have Wisconsin or Indiana on the home slate, which gives them even a better chance to run the table at the Schottenstein Center. There will be some losses on the road against elite competition in store for the Scarlet and Gray, so they can’t afford to fall behind the eight ball by losing a game or two at home.
Buckeye Nation may not come out in full force for hoops like they do at the Horseshoe in the fall, but Columbus can be a difficult place to play for opposing teams. It will need to be if a Big Ten title is in the cards this season.
Steal at Least One Road Game Against Elite Competition
Even a perfect home record won’t be enough to win the demanding Big Ten. Nobody would realistically expect the Buckeyes to win every road game, but they do need to steal at least one against an elite opponent.
Ohio State travels to Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana among others, so the opportunities are in place. The Kohl Center in Madison is the one place where Matta has really struggled throughout his career in Columbus, and there isn’t a return trip at Ohio State from Wisconsin, so if they could pick one here, beating the Badgers on the road would be monumental.
Last year the Buckeyes picked up a critical win in Bloomington to spur a run at the Big Ten tournament title and the Elite Eight. A similar type of victory this season would be needed for a conference crown.
Improve Perimeter Shooting
Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross have been very formidable from behind the three-point line, but others such as Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson need to improve before Big Ten defenses figure out the blueprint to shutting down Ohio State’s offense.
Notre Dame made life particularly difficult for the Buckeyes in the second half of its game by packing the lane and forcing the perimeter shooting to be the only option for Ohio State. Were it not for the incredible comeback in the final minute, the Scarlet and Gray would have swallowed their first loss because they couldn’t hit from the outside.
The team as a whole checks in at a respectable 35 percent from downtown, but that is largely because of Smith’s 44.6 percent mark and Ross’ 39.2 percent clip. Thompson is at 30.8, Craft is 27.8 percent and Scott is 29.7 percent, which all need to improve.
A Big Ten title may depend on it.
Get the Bench Involved
The Big Ten is arguably the most difficult conference in the country to win in because of the quality of competition and the physically demanding style of play many teams utilize.
It will be difficult for the Buckeyes to get through the conference slate unscathed without going to their bench. Six players averaged more than 22 minutes a night in nonconference play, but nine saw the floor for at least 12 minutes a game.
That isn’t a bad rotation, but Matta has a reputation for shortening the bench when the games get tight later in the year. It would serve him well in the long run to continue to use a deeper rotation than just six or seven guys.
If contributors such as Amedeo Della Valle, Marc Loving and Trey McDonald show up in Big Ten play, it will be much easier to win the conference title.
Stick to the Calling Card
Ohio State’s offense has looked formidable at times during nonconference play even with its perimeter issues, but the defense is the calling card that could bring it home a Big Ten crown.
The Buckeyes rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings and have elite talent on every level at that end of the court.
Craft and Scott make up the best defensive combination in the country at the guard spot, Smith Jr. and Thompson are lengthy and athletic and get in passing lanes and influence shots at forward and Amir Williams has finally turned into a defensive force down low. Few teams in the country are better at forcing turnovers and then turning those into easy opportunities on the other end.
While having impactful defensive talent across the board is critically important, it is Scott and Craft that keep the engine running. Each is arguably one of the best five defenders in the nation at an individual level, which means they are that much more formidable when paired together. They are averaging nearly five steals a night as a pair and will make life particularly difficult for Big Ten ball-handlers.
If the Buckeyes stick to the defensive script and hit a few more from the perimeter, a conference crown could be theirs.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.