Ohio State basketball has been lurking all season long in the Big Ten picture. Even though the Buckeyes were ranked in the top five nationally to start the season, they were behind more heralded teams in Indiana and Michigan. And even though they’re right in the conference race coming into this week, it’s still the Hoosiers and Wolverines getting the attention. Ohio State can change all that in the coming week. It starts tonight with a visit to play Michigan (9 PM ET, ESPN) and then concludes on Sunday with a home date against Indiana (1 PM ET, CBS). With Ohio State now on the clock, it’s time to take a closer look at their prospects of competing for a Big Ten crown and possibly more in March.
If you’ve seen any of the Buckeyes’ games so far this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard about forward Deshaun Thomas and that he essentially carries this team. That’s a correct assessment. Thomas does it all. He scores 20 ppg and can go inside or float to the three-point line where he hits 40 percent. Thomas is the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year. The issue is that there’s only one other scorer—junior guard Lenzelle Smith, who’s also scoring in double figures.
Ohio State can survive some scoring imbalance—Thomas is good enough to cover for a lot of ills, and junior point guard Aaron Craft is capable of helping out Smith with the scoring if need be. Craft averages nine points a game, but his offensive role is more in distribution and he’s a lockdown defender on the perimeter. I think the bigger concern head coach Thad Matta faces is the lack of rebounding help. Because Thomas moves to the perimeter so frequently, he only averages six rebounds a game. If Ohio State is going to fulfill its potential then, either Evan Ravenel has to improve his rebounding, or sophomore forward Sam Thompson has to score more, and thereby enable Thomas to spend more time in the post.
Thomas’ consistency is frankly amazing. Whether its Ohio State’s good Big Ten wins—home victories over Michigan and Wisconsin, or their losses—road defeats at Illinois and Michigan State—the Player of the Year frontrunner knocks down his 20-plus and is usually at least reasonably efficient in doing so. Contrary to what you might think, the key differentiating factors aren’t offensive balance— of which, the Buckeyes don’t have any regardless. Rather, it’s their defense, and to a lesser extent, rebounding.
Ohio State held both Michigan and Wisconsin to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor, while Illinois and Michigan State were up in the mid-to-high 40s. If we trace the season back into November and look at losses to Duke and Kansas, you see the Blue Devils hitting 47 percent and the Jayhawks sizzling at 51 percent. And in both of those losses, the Buckeyes got very poor shooting from the perimeter, with Craft and Smith tossing up bricks.
The rebounding factor was key in a win over Michigan, but it wasn’t the inside players doing it. Smith grabbed 10 rebounds in that January 13 victory and on the flip side, the Michigan State loss was, in large part, the result of a rebound deficit, because the Spartan guards were better going to the glass. The positive for Matta is that in spite of some of the individual flaws his players have with regards to rebounding, they aren’t getting pounded on the glass, and that allows games to swing more on defensive play, which his guards can execute.
I’ve got a tough time seeing how Ohio State can win the Big Ten this year, given the quality of the conference competition and the lack of inside play. But Matta is a coach, and Thomas, is a player, who can figure out ways to cover for shortcomings, and if someone like Smith can step up with some big games in key spots, Ohio State’s got a shot. Those big games are now at hand and by late Sunday afternoon we shouldn’t have to wonder where Ohio State stands anymore.
MICHIGAN STATE HANGS WITH THE LEADERS
Michigan State is another team that’s tied with Michigan and Ohio State for second place, and just a game back of Indiana in the conference race. Like Ohio State, they are projected as a #3 seed in the latest projections of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi that came out this morning. Tom Izzo is getting it down with a backcourt that has Keith Appling doing an excellent job both scoring and running the show, and Branden Dawson crashing the glass from the wing. Junior center Adriean Payne is the proto-type tough rebounder that Izzo has consistently developed in East Lansing.
The Spartans already have the aforementioned win over Ohio State and they’ve got a big road win at Wisconsin. The only conference losses are credible defeats at Minnesota and at Indiana. Sparty gets a return trip from the Gophers on Wednesday night, then they host Michigan on February 12 and host Indiana on February 19. Don’t be surprised to see Izzo back atop the conference standings in a couple weeks.
[Editor’s note: Gary Harris expects to be able to play for the Spartans, however Travis Trice is questionable at this time for the MSU/Minnesota game on Wednesday. Lack of depth could be a concern for Michigan State in this game if one, or both, of these players aren’t able to play.]