Now that Big Ten Conference play has begun, the Ohio State Buckeyes are in prove-it mode.
They're trying to prove that the unbeaten start, lofty national ranking and sterling defensive efficiency weren't just functions of sketchy opposition.
They're trying to prove that the new, more democratic approach to the scoring load will work in a post-Deshaun Thomas era.
Most importantly, they must prove that LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams can sustain the improvement they've shown in the first two months of this season.
But over those first two months, where does each Buckeye starter and the bench as a whole stand in relation to the rest of the Big Ten? Who's been most productive at each position? Let's try to find out.
Starters are defined as the five team members who have started the most games so far this season. In the event of a tie, the most recent starter is used. Players with potentially long-term injuries, such as Michigan's Mitch McGary, have not been included.
Full power rankings for each position can be found at the end of each slide to illustrate where Ohio State's players stand compared to their competition.
The scoring improvement that Buckeye fans have hoped for from Aaron Craft hasn't happened on a consistent basis. His perimeter shooting has regressed from the high-water mark he enjoyed as a sophomore, and he's been less aggressive in putting up attempts than he was last season.
But that's all the nits that need picking.
Craft remains his constant bulldog self on defense, ranking in the top 50 nationally in steal percentage for the third time in his career, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). Usually paired with Shannon Scott in the Buckeye backcourt, it's been a while since a Big Ten program had two ball hawks as feared as these sharing the court.
Offensively, we can credit Craft for knowing his limitations. The lessened aggressiveness alluded to earlier is largely confined to the perimeter, because Craft has been a prime beneficiary of the tightened hand-checking rules that made so many headlines in November. His 64.0 free-throw rate is a career high, and he's taken nearly 60 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com.
Keith Appling and Tim Frazier currently stand ahead of Craft in our rankings thanks to their heightened importance to their teams as scorers. Both are very willing distributors as well, ranking ahead of Craft in assist percentage according to StatSheet.com. Neither is a slouch on defense by any means, but neither is in Craft's class there, either.
- Keith Appling, Michigan State
- Tim Frazier, Penn State
- Aaron Craft, Ohio State
- Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
- Deandre Mathieu, Minnesota
- Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin
- Tracy Abrams, Illinois
- Ronnie Johnson, Purdue
- Mike Gesell, Iowa
- Derrick Walton, Michigan
- Tai Webster, Nebraska
- Dave Sobolewski, Northwestern
Guards that play against Ohio State are at the mercy of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott as they both decide which opponent to guard. The effect is similar to deciding whether one gets run over by an 18-wheeler or a freight train.
Scott would be Aaron Craft on every other team except the one on which he plays next to Aaron Craft. The two are one of five pairs of teammates who both rank in Ken Pomeroy's top 50 in steal percentage (subscription required).
Offensively, Scott is every bit the passer Craft is, and unlike his senior teammate, he's made some improvements on his mid-range shooting. He's still not a tremendous three-point threat, but that doesn't stop him from putting up three tries per game.
The players ranked ahead of Scott are all scorers of proven potency who usually take shots they can make. Andre Hollins comes in just behind Scott, because he can also struggle with shot selection and doesn't hold a candle to the Buckeye junior defensively.
- Gary Harris, Michigan State
- Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
- Nik Stauskas, Michigan
- D.J. Newbill, Penn State
- Shannon Scott, Ohio State
- Andre Hollins, Minnesota
- Ben Brust, Wisconsin
- Terone Johnson, Purdue
- Joseph Bertrand, Illinois
- Troy Williams, Indiana
- JerShon Cobb, Northwestern
- Ray Gallegos, Nebraska
As much as it's possible for the second-leading scorer on one of the nation's Top Five teams to be underrated, Lenzelle Smith Jr. falls into that category. Aaron Craft polarizes fans nationwide, and LaQuinton Ross captures headlines for NCAA tournament heroics, but Smith simply produces like one of the nation's most efficient offensive players.
Smith ranks in the Big Ten's top five in both effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) and true-shooting percentage (TS%), according to StatSheet. The unflappable senior is making plays when the Buckeyes most need them, such as in the final 44 seconds against Notre Dame. Smith scored nine of OSU's 12 points in those final moments to preserve the Buckeyes' undefeated record.
Smith's a solid second option on a balanced offense. Even if he's not going off for 30 any given night, he makes 13 points and five rebounds look as easy as rolling out of bed.
Rayvonte Rice and Aaron White are two more of the conference's most effective scorers, with Rice leading the league at 19 points per game. White should be a stronger rebounder at his size, but few players in the country have done more with their scoring opportunities this season—not even Lenzelle Smith.
- Rayvonte Rice, Illinois
- Aaron White, Iowa
- Lenzelle Smith Jr., Ohio State
- Austin Hollins, Minnesota
- Terran Petteway, Nebraska
- Caris LeVert, Michigan
- Drew Crawford, Northwestern
- Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
- Josh Gasser, Wisconsin
- Will Sheehey, Indiana
- Brandon Taylor, Penn State
- Kendall Stephens, Purdue
When LaQuinton Ross is on, he's one of the Big Ten's most dangerous scoring threats. He's averaged 18 points per game over his last nine.
When he's off? He scored seven points total over a three-game span in November, so you do the math.
We expect that the former is much closer to the real player. His 25-point, 12-rebound masterpiece against Purdue lends credence to that theory.
Still, Ross still has yet to be a featured name on scouting reports against the elite Big Ten opponents. That slight uncertainty is what keeps him behind other similar players in our rankings.
This top four could logically be presented in any order. Sam Dekker combines scoring volume and efficiency slightly better than Glenn Robinson III and Ross, while Branden Dawson affects the game in all the less glamorous aspects. The 60-percent shooter is second in the Big Ten at 9.2 rebounds per game.
- Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
- Branden Dawson, Michigan State
- Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
- LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State
- Shavon Shields, Nebraska
- Ross Travis, Penn State
- Melsahn Basabe, Iowa
- Jon Ekey, Illinois
- Jeremy Hollowell, Indiana
- Errick Peck, Purdue
- Oto Osenieks, Minnesota
- Sanjay Lumpkin, Northwestern
Similar to Ross, Amir Williams has a burden of proof on his shoulders. His early production has been the best of his largely disappointing career by far.
Big Ten games, however, are a different beast altogether. Williams struggled through the Buckeyes' opener at Purdue, playing only 14 minutes due to foul trouble. Boilermaker counterpart A.J. Hammons had his motor turned up, posting 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks.
Williams was likewise a nonfactor in the Buckeyes' win over Marquette, aside from blocking five shots. Once he proves he can pull a double-double in matchups against the likes of Adreian Payne or Noah Vonleh, he can make a steep rise up the rankings.
Payne and Kaminsky stand head and shoulders above the rest of their conference rivals with their ability to draw defenses beyond the arc and still compete in the post. Vonleh is leading the conference in rebounding but is still adapting to the college game. Turnovers and fouls are an ever-present hazard.
As for Hammons, his domination of Williams hints at the destructive capability he brings when he's focused.
- Adreian Payne, Michigan State
- Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
- Noah Vonleh, Indiana
- A.J. Hammons, Purdue
- Amir Williams, Ohio State
- Eliott Eliason, Minnesota
- Nnanna Egwu, Illinois
- Walter Pitchford, Nebraska
- Adam Woodbury, Iowa
- Donovon Jack, Penn State
- Alex Olah, Northwestern
- Jon Horford, Michigan
Aside from Sam Thompson's array of YouTube-friendly dunks, we didn't quite know what to expect from the Ohio State bench as the season began. Two months in, we've seen good moments, but some uncertainty may linger if starters go down due to injury.
Freshman Marc Loving has proven an opportunistic scorer, capable of getting to the rim but more prone to lurking at the three-point line. He made a pair of key triples against Purdue within 30 seconds of checking into the game, the second staking OSU to its first seven-point lead of the day.
Likewise, sophomore Amedeo Della Valle is a three-point specialist, but unlike Loving he contributes little else to the attack. Center Trey McDonald is a solid defensive presence and is capable of getting to the line, but he only makes 33 percent of those shots. He also commits 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes, according to Pomeroy (subscription required), negating the whistles that he draws.
For his part, Thompson can be a streaky scorer outside of his slams. He's actually the weakest effective shooter on the team, per StatSheet. There is, however, a lot of value in the excitement factor his explosive plays bring to the Columbus crowd.
Iowa can roll out a full second unit, and all five can be relied on to produce. Jarrod Uthoff should be the runaway favorite for Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year so far. Minnesota gets solid scoring from the duo of Malik Smith (9.9 PPG) and Joey King (7.3).
Purdue coach Matt Painter only now appears settled on a starting five, so his bench has fluctuated from game to game. Freshman Bryson Scott has established himself as an exciting presence at both ends, but he's not getting a lot of consistent scoring support. Jay Simpson and newly demoted Errick Peck are both strong rebounding presences.
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
- Penn State
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