2007-2008 Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: (18-12, 9-8 Big Ten)
Key Wins: N-Syracuse, Florida, @ Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue
Key Losses: @ Tennessee, North Carolina, @ Iowa, @ Michigan
Key Stat: 4-8 away from Value City Arena.
Key Numbers: RPI: 55; SOS: 33; NSOS: 13; Vs. Top 50: 1-9
Biggest Strengths: Big-time talents. As I wrote earlier this season, the Buckeyes are not in a rebuilding mode; Ohio State is – and for the foreseeable future will continue – reloading. Talent-wise, the Buckeyes are an NCAA Tournament team with an assortment of offensive options.
The Buckeyes also play excellent defense (Ohio State is ranked No. 22 in the country in terms of defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com). Using their length, the Buckeyes’ 2-3 zone mirrors the vaunted defense Syracuse has used for decades. The biggest difference between the two zones is Ohio State’s aggressive trap when the ball gravitates near the sideline. When Ohio State’s limitless talent plays up to its potential and the defense is running like clockwork, a dangerous Ohio State team will appear (see Ohio State’s 79-48 win over Iowa in early January).
Biggest Weaknesses: The negative with having so much young talent is just that – the talent is extremely raw. Ohio State trots out three freshmen – Kosta Koufos, Jon Diebler and Evan Turner – who play significant roles in the offense each night. That trio, coupled with sophomore David Lighty, gives the Buckeyes a quartet that few can match but experience and poise that seemingly ever team in the country can match.
This team also lacks that “it” characteristics that separates a solid team from a good or great team. Sure the Buckeyes have played a brutal schedule (North Carolina, Butler, Tennessee, Purdue x2, Indiana x2, Michigan State x2, and Wisconsin), but eight losses in eight games against those teams (with games vs. Purdue and MSU this week) show the Buckeyes can’t beat the big boys. Granted, many of the games have been close (Tennessee 74; OSU 69; MSU 66, OSU 60; Indiana 59, OSU 53; Indiana 72, OSU 69) but it just highlights the fact these Buckeyes can play with great team for much of the game but, in a 40-minute contest, Ohio State just doesn’t have enough to capture a victory.
Most Important Player: Jamar Butler. Just because he took a backseat to a pair of Top-4 picks in the NBA draft during his junior season doesn’t mean Butler wasn’t an important cog for the 2006-07 Buckeyes. This year, he is the main cog. Not only does Butler lead the Buckeyes with 14 points per game, but his 6.2 assists per game is tops in the Big Ten and his free throw percentage (92.5) is as close to automatic as there is. Butler’s biggest weakness, however, is his tendency in settling for either 3-pointers or long 2-point shots. Worse off, Butler’s form on most of his longer shots is terrible as he is one of the only players in the country who shots 25-foot fade away jumpers as if they’re worth 5 points. When Butler penetrates opposing defenses, he’s elusive enough to get all the way to the rim or, if defenses collapse, he can hit a plethora of other Buckeye shooters who are deadly from long range. His decision-making is crucial for the Buckeyes, more so than his ability to knock down jumpers.
X-Factor: Kosta Koufos. No one expected Koufos to fill the gigantic footprints left by Greg Oden. However, recent success in seemingly all areas of Ohio State athletics (two straight BCS title game appearances and an NCAA Final Four appearance and, before that, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament) has put some pressure on the team’s impact freshman. Looking around the country, scarlet and gray-clad fans see UCLA’s Kevin Love and wonder why Koufos can’t have the same type of impact for the Buckeyes. The truth is, when Koufos stays out of foul trouble, he is a force on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. But, if he picks up a second foul early in the game and coach Thad Matta needs him on the floor, the defensive intensity disappears, as do his strong moves in the post. No one should expect Koufos to play like Bill Walton – a traditional back-to-the-basket player. Koufos is the mold of what big foreign-born players will continue to look like – the Dirk Nowitski’s of the world that have the height to play in the post but never hesitate stepping beyond the arc or taking 15-foot jumpers. When the freshman is on the mark, he commands double, and even triple, teams. That opens things up for Butler and other Buckeyes. When Koufos is off, so are the Buckeyes.
Might Lose When… The shots aren’t falling. Because the Buckeyes love to pull the trigger from deep, it should be no surprise that when the shooters are on target, the Buckeyes will be hard to beat. On the contrary, when Ohio State is cold from deep, the results aren’t pretty (In the Preseason NIT title game against Texas A&M, a 70-47 loss, Ohio State shot 14-for-58 from the field and an even worse 4-for-19 [21.1 percent] from 3-point range). Ohio State is should be the 2007-08 poster child for the famous phrase: “Live by the 3, die by the 3.”
Might Surprise You With… its vaunted 2-3 zone. While Ohio State’s zone isn’t impenetrable, opponents will be surprised at the length the Buckeyes possess down in the post. Joining the 7-foot Koufos is 6-10 senior Othello Hunter. The only reason the nation hasn’t heard more about Hunter is, for most of his career, he’s played second fiddle to another big man (Terence Dials, Greg Oden and now Koufos). Hunter would be a solid 12-and-10 guy if he was the starting center. However, his numbers never jump out at you after a game, but his defensive intensity and shot-blocking presence in the paint is undeniable.
Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: This is not an NCAA Tournament team. If the Buckeyes somehow knock off Michigan State (March 9), their tournament chance will have improved drastically, but that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes are a worthy one of the 34 at-large spots. Two home wins over a pair of top 20 teams and a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament (OSU, if its wins the next game, will be guaranteed the conference’s No. 5 seed in the tournament. That sets up a quarterfinal matchup with Michigan State and a likely semifinal matchup against Wisconsin. Two wins there and the Buckeyes will have strung together four straight very impressive victories and will be in the Big Ten Tournament finals. That would secure a bid, based on the deep tourney run and four big-time victories. Now, expecting that, after watching this team play this season, would be drunken optimism. Ohio State is an NIT team and, if it happens to land on the right side of this year’s weak bubble, a first-round NCAA Tournament exit would be in store.