It seems to be an annual tradition around these parts to start fretting about the Ohio State basketball team come January. Around this time last season, Ohio State had just lost their fourth game in a row, a road game at Nebraska, to fall to 15-4, 2-4 in the Big Ten, without a true quality win. The Buckeyes would rally to beat three ranked teams, finish 10-8 in Big Ten play, and grabbed a five seed in the NCAAs, a respectable finish for a flawed team. The year before that, Ohio State's appearance in the NCAAs wasn't so much in doubt (they beat the #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines at home), but after multiple misses against strong teams, there were still real questions about good that team was.
Now, we're into the second half of January, and Ohio State is in a precarious position once again. Ohio State is 14-5, 3-3 in the Big Ten, and is very squarely on the NCAA bubble at the moment. The Buckeyes lack a quality win, and for the first time since the 2007-2088 season, could legitimately miss the NCAA tournament.
Why? The Buckeyes are still technically within striking distance of the Big Ten, sitting only two games back with plenty to play, but have a paltry #52 RPI, right behind BYU. Ohio State currently only has just one win against an RPI Top 50 team, and that team, Illinois (46), could slide out at any moment .It's possible, maybe even probable, that none of the three teams they've beaten in Big Ten play will make the tournament, and Ohio State's nonconference schedule was terrible, with only High Point cracking the RPI Top 100 (89). Last year, Ohio State's best nonconference victory was a surprisingly resurgent North Dakota State, giving a lagging computer profile a little boost.
The Buckeyes are likely to still crack 20 wins, a mark Thad Matta has reached in every season he's coached at Ohio State. If the Buckeyes sweep Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers, Nebraska, and split their home and away with Purdue, they'll at least hit that mark, but that alone wouldn't be enough for the NCAAs. Ohio State only plays conference leaders Wisconsin and Maryland once, both at home, and may need to win at least one of those games to really feel comfortable about grabbing a bid. The Big Ten, normally one of the strongest leagues in the country, is uncharacteristically down, and outside of those two games, opportunities for true quality wins may find themselves few and far between.
So why is Ohio State in this uncomfortable position?
Inconsistent performances from senior leaders
This Ohio State team relies quite a bit on very young players, but they also have three seniors who are heavy in the rotation, with Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams. Williams has caused more anguish from Buckeye fans than perhaps any basketball player in recent memory, and while some of it is undeserved, a lot isn't. His tendency to check out of games, his inability to rebound for his size, and a penchant for occasional poor effort has been an enormous detriment to a team that really needs rim protection. When Williams is engaged, he's still one of the better interior defenders in the Big Ten, and he shoot free throws. However, especially against good competition this season, we've seen some of the worst Amir games yet, which shouldn't happen for a senior.
But it isn't just Williams. Sam Thompson was supposed to shoulder some of the scoring load this season, and become more engaged for the entirety of the game, and while his scoring has increased a little bit, his consistency and ability to impact the game on multiple levels hasn't. Thompson is shooting only 21% from downtown this season, and hasn't hit a three point shot this year. Thompson isn't small, and is one of the most athletically gifted players in the league, but he also hasn't been able to get rebounds. Ohio State needs him to play hard and impact the game with his defense, his awareness, and his scoring beyond just SLAM THOMPSON DOT GIF moments, but that hasn't happened enough this season, especially in Big Ten play.
And then there is Shannon Scott, who has played the best, and shoulders the most responsibility, of the group. Scott is one of the nation's leaders in assists (averaging nearly seven a game), and has made excellent improvements in his free throw shooting and ability to finish. But Scott has struggled with his shot (26% from downtown, only 43% from the field), and he's struggled badly in Ohio State losses. Scott had only three points against Louisville and was held to single digits in both Iowa losses. If Scott isn't shooting well or distributing well, it's almost impossible for Ohio State to win.
This is not a balanced team offensively
This team's best player is unquestionably D'Angelo Russell, who leads the team in scoring at 18.6 a game, while also leading the team in rebounding (not a great look when your leading rebounder is 6'3). Russell is unquestionably gifted, has a solid three point stroke, can move the basketball very well, and can finish at the rim. He's also just one dude, and a freshman. Russell has been prone to occasional hero-ball moments or inefficient shooting, which is understandable, given that nobody else has consistently picked up the slack. Marc Loving has had his moments, and he's the closest thing to a second scorer Ohio State has, but he's also young and inconsistent. There is a direct correlation right now between Russell's shooting success, and the success of the team. When those threes are falling, Ohio State tends to win. When he throws up a 6-20 spot (Louisville), or 4-17 (North Carolina), or 3-15 (Indiana) or 4-16 (Iowa), the Buckeyes lose.
The good news is that given how long the team is, there is time for Marc Loving to become that player, or for Kam Williams to earn more court time and become that player, or for any number of other Buckeyes to start hitting more shots. Right now, it's a little reminiscent of the Deshaun Thomas era, or even the LaQuinton Ross era, where one player is trying to create offense, while the others stand around. Not even Russell is good enough for the Buckeyes to win much that way.
General consistency is poor
I'm not sure Ohio State has played an entire 40 minute game "well" yet. They came closest against Michigan, and as a result, blew the doors completely off a talented, but rebuilding Wolverine squad. The Buckeyes trailed at halftime against Illinois. They blew a solid second half lead and needed overtime to beat Minnesota. They dug huge first half holes against Iowa (both times), Louisville and North Carolina. The entire Indiana game was ugly and frustrating.
You just can't do that and expect to beat good teams. You can't take multiple possessions off and throw bad passes, or go to the wrong spots. Part of that is youth. Part of that is poor player leadership from seniors who should know better. Part of that may be the limitations of this roster. Part of that, surely, is the fact that Louisville, North Carolina and Iowa are all very solid basketball teams. But for a team with the talent, coaching, and depth of this Ohio State team, it shouldn't be an excuse any longer.
For what it's worth, I still think Ohio State finds a way into the tournament. But at this point in the season, it can't be taken for granted. Ohio State's season still has some potential, but some things need to improve, and relatively quickly, before that potential is taken away from them.