On the Hardwood: Ohio State Buckeyes

Jared Wickerham

A look back and a look forward at the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Previously: PurdueNorthwesternPenn StateIndianaIllinois, Minnesota, Iowa

Ohio State's season wasn't as much of a head-scratcher as Iowa's seemed to be, as long as you ignore the polls--the Buckeyes rose to No. 3 in the country at one point, only to finish fifth in the Big Ten. Thad Matta's 2013-14 squad, while solid, was certainly not one of his best--then again, given some of the teams he's had in Columbus, it's a bit much to ask for a legitimate top 10 team every single year.

So, what happened this season?

As you probably remember, the Buckeyes raced off to a 15-0, including Big Ten wins at Purdue and a 31-point thumping of Nebraska. OSU rolled into East Lansing with a No. 3 ranking--you beat the teams who are set before you, but I think even OSU fans would admit that this past season's non-conference slate was far from challenging.

OSU battled back from an 17-point deficit against the Spartans late in the second half, but ultimately fell in overtime. They they dropped their next three (Iowa, at Minnesota, at Nebraska). Four losses through six Big Ten games were enough to knock the Buckeyes out of league title contention.

After that mini-slide, however, they sort of righted the ship, I suppose, if you don't use the past few Ohio State basketball teams as points of reference. They finished 8-4 in the league, with the losses coming to Penn State, Michigan, at Penn State and at Indiana. For whatever reason, the Nittany Lions had OSU's number this season.

They did pick up some impressive wins along the way, beating Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, holding Illinois and Minnesota to 39 and 46 points, respectively, edging MSU by two at home and advancing to the Big Ten tournament semifinal game, where the Wolverines won, 72-69.

Despite a nice run to close the regular season, the season came to an end when in-state foe Dayton knocked them off in the 6/11 matchup, 60-59.

Numbers
  • In terms of points per possession, the Buckeyes finish sixth during league play at 1.02 PPP.
  • On the defensive side, they held Big Ten opponents to a league-best 0.97 PPP. Stifling defense, middling offense; this shouldn't be news to you.
  • They finished seventh in eFG% (48.2 percent) and fourth in opponent eFG% (48.4 percent), behind Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State.
  • Why did they struggle so much on the offensive end? One factor: they just couldn't shoot the three. The Buckeyes finished 10th in the league with a team three-point field goal percentage of 30.5 percent, ahead of just Penn State and a punchless Northwestern offense.
  • Oddly, they weren't a great rebounding team either. They finished 9th in defensive rebounding percentage (70.1 percent) and ninth in offensive rebounding percentage (28.2 percent), one spot ahead of a Michigan team that we here know is not exactly a powerhouse on the offensive glass.
  • Again, for what they lacked in offense they somewhat made up for with tremendous defense. The Buckeyes notched the league-best defensive turnover percentage (21.0 percent), edging second-place Illinois by a decent bit (18.9 percent). Additionally, they were fourth in block percentage and first in steal percentage (12.0 percent).
Roster Shakeup
Of course, the headliner is Aaron Craft, who, after four years of making life difficult for even the best Big Ten point guards (e.g. Trey Burke), is finally moving on to life after college basketball. LaQuinton Ross made the jump to the NBA, but went undrafted.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. is also gone; he quietly averaged 11.0 ppg and 5.1 rpg. He only shot 33 percent from three this past season, but proved capable of hitting the three in the past (38 percent in 2011-12 and 37 percent in 2012-13).

Finally, sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle, once a Michigan target, elected to return to Europe to play professional basketball there.

As for returners, guard Shannon Scott will strive to fill Craft's role as a facilitator and defensive pest. He's not a good three-point shooter either -- he and Craft both shot 30.2 percent this past season from downtown -- but in almost eight fewer minutes per game than Craft, he put up solid numbers and, like Craft, has excellent quicks. He's a good defensive player, too...not on Craft's level (who is?), but I think he brings a little more offensive pop than Craft did.

The 6-foot-7 former Whitney Young (Chicago) standout Sam Thompson is back for his senior year, as is 6-foot-11 center Amir Williams. Thompson is a solid three-point threat (35.5 percent) and Williams finished sixth during league play in ORB%. With Ross and his offensive rebounding ability departing Columbus, the Buckeyes will need Williams to be even more of a threat on the glass this season.

Incoming recruits-wise, Matta did his usual strong work on the recruiting trail. He landed four-star -- another Michigan target -- SF Keita Bates-Diop, four-star Pickerington SF Jae'Sean Tate, three-star Cleveland C David Bell and five-star SG D'Angelo Russell, who received Big Ten offers from Michigan State, Indiana and Nebraska, among many other national offers. His scouting report blurb on Rivals says:
Slender shooting guard is similar to former UConn star Jeremy Lamb. A confident jump shooter who can handle and pass it a bit allowing him to serve as a secondary ball handler. Sometimes can be overwhelmed by physical wings.
He'll likely provide some of the instant offense they so crave like Brawndo, and at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, you'd think he might be able to replace some of the rebounding ability Smith Jr. had (which was excellent for a shooting guard).

Lastly, the Buckeyes also got transfer commits from former Temple C Anthony Lee and former Virginia Tech center Trevor Thompson. Whatever they provide, it looks like the Buckeyes will have be fairly deep at the 3-5 spots.

What's next?

Roll your eyes if you must, but losing a leader and defensive presence like Craft will certainly hurt the Buckeyes, especially at first. As a fan of Big Ten basketball in general, I think Scott is a pretty solid player, and while I don't think he will make up for the loss of Craft, if he can be 80 percent of the defender Craft was while providing a bit more offensive punch, the Buckeyes should be okay there come March.

Nonetheless, scoring will likely continue to be an issue, unless Russell explodes from the very beginning (which, as a five-star talent, he very well might). Three-point shooting in particular will be a weakness on this squad; Thompson, at 35.5 percent, is the most accurate returning marksman. Again, much of the pressure here will fall on Russell to produce, whether inside or outside the arc.

This isn't Matta's first rodeo; having been in Columbus since 2004, I don't foresee them missing out on the tournament or anything. Things might be dicey to start the Big Ten schedule, but once Russell and the other highly-touted freshmen get their feet wet, the Buckeyes should round into a team that finishes in the top half of the league. That's probably not an exciting prospect for Buckeye fans, especially in light of the strength of previous OSU teams, but that's just the nature of college basketball. You can't make a deep run every single year -- even a constantly-loaded Kentucky program has its off years.

With that said, you know the Buckeyes will continue to play great defense, and, based on that alone, they will continue to be a tough out and an unpleasant foe to face. Whether or not the 2014-15 Big Ten will be relatively "down" enough to push the Buckeyes into the top third of the conference remains to be seen, of course, but that defense will have them in the conversation.
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