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Don't panic about Ohio State basketball ... yet

Early indications are that the Buckeyes may struggle mightily this season. But, despite three straight losses, there have been signs of growth that indicate the program owns a promising future.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the present seems like the perfect time to panic regarding the state of the Ohio State men's basketball team.

*On Nov. 20, the Buckeyes' 61-game home winning streak against unranked non-conference opposition was snapped with a 73-68 defeat to Texas-Arlington.

*Four days later, Ohio State never led in a 82-74 home loss to Louisiana Tech.

*Friday night, the Buckeyes fell 81-76 in overtime to Memphis and have now lost three consecutive games before January for the first time in coach Thad Matta's 12 seasons as coach.

To top things off, Virginia, the two-time defending ACC regular-season champions, visit Columbus tonight. Oof.

With 11 underclassmen dotting Ohio State's roster, everyone -- Matta included -- knew there would be growing pains this season.

"I think this team has to find itself," Matta said after the Louisiana Tech game. "I think that we have to look at our weaknesses, admit that we have them, and find ways to correct them. I told them after the game that we have to do a better job teaching you how to play, but more importantly how to think the game."

2015-16 will be one big learning process for the Buckeyes. There will be good and bad moments -- and probably more of the latter for the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean the season isn't worth following. So, let's examine the good, the bad, and the random surrounding Ohio State's season to this point.

The Good

Daniel Giddens will be a menace...once his rougher edges are smoothed out. The effort, energy, and overall enthusiasm Giddens has for the game is admirable. In purely those aspects, the 6-10 freshman center from Georgia is the polar opposite of Amir Williams, who, bless his heart, occasionally looked like he'd rather be anywhere else than a basketball court. On one possession during Ohio State's loss to Texas-Arlington, Giddens whiffed on a volleyball spike-style block attempt, but recovered to make the rejection and dished the ball to a teammate before falling out of bounds.

"He’s one guy that you can look out there on the floor and you know who he’s playing for," Matta said of Giddens after the Louisiana Tech game. "You know how important [the game is], the passion."

After starting Trevor Thompson for the first three games, Matta inserted Giddens into the starting lineup against Louisiana Tech. Giddens has largely outproduced Thompson to this point, so the promotion was deserved.


Minutes*

Points*

Rebounds*

Off. Rebounds

Blocks*

Field-Goal %

Free-Throw %

Giddens

22.0

6.2

6.6

15

3.2

56.5

31.3

Thompson

10.4

4.0

2.6

3

0.6

72.7

80.0

*Statistics based on per-game averages.

Giddens has his drawbacks at the moment as well. He fouled out of the Memphis game. (Thompson fouled out vs. the Tigers, too). Giddens picked up a technical foul vs. Texas-Arlington, and has been fortunate to avoid a few more technicals since then. His free-throw shooting isn't a DeAndre Jordan-level issue yet -- it's been five games, after all -- but Giddens will lose playing time if he can't convert from the charity stripe.

The four key returnees from last year have improved. That quartet would be junior Marc Loving and sophomores Keita-Bates Diop, Jae-Sean Tate, and Kam Willliams. It's possible these four could've spread their wings more last winter had D'Angelo Russell not (rightfully) owned many Ohio State offensive possessions, but in any case, it's nice to see tangible and visual improvement from this group.

Loving has shown off a newfound post game, leading to a rise in his scoring average (4.4 ppg as a freshman, 9.4 as a sophomore, 16.6 this season) for the third straight year. He's also averaging over six boards per game, up from 3.6 rebounds per game a year ago. Bates-Diop has put on some weight, is driving to the rim with authority, and has scored in double figures in all five games after reaching double digits just four times last year.

Tate remains Ohio State's most indispensable player, giving the squad toughness -- the way he crashed in and secured a rebound in a crowd during one sequence vs. Texas-Arlington comes to mind -- but he's also diversified his game a bit this year, increasing his attempts and effectiveness from 3 while bumping up his assist and rebound totals. Williams' improvement was on display in the Buckeyes' blowout victory over Grambling State, where he had 22 points, five rebounds, and four steals.

The Bad

The turnovers have (and will continue to) come in bunches. Ohio State has 21 more turnovers (81) than assists (60) on the year. Given the youth of the roster, that's not surprising to me. However, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.74 is a recipe for season-long disaster. And while that number may improve in the coming weeks, it's quite likely Ohio State will be slippery with the ball in Big Ten play and keep Matta tie-less for most of the season.

Opposing defenders have been all up in the Buckeye ball handlers' business to this point, and Ohio State can expect that on-ball pressure to continue. While JaQuan Lyle is averaging over six dimes per game and has shown glimpses of brilliant playmaking, he's turning the ball over nearly four times per game.

Truthfully, outside of Lyle, the Buckeyes' ball handling is extremely shaky. Freshman point guard A.J. Harris often moves too quickly for his own good. Bates-Diop, Loving, and Tate -- Ohio State's three starting wings -- are hot and cold with their respective handles. Sometimes they'll dribble with purpose and finish around the rim; other times they'll roam with the ball aimlessly and proceed to the bucket with uncertainty.

Free-throw shooting is team-wide issue. Ohio State is ranked 334th out of 351 Division I teams in team free-throw shooting, checking in at a cringe-worthy 59 percent. Three of the team's newcomers -- Giddens (31 percent), Harris (33 percent), and Lyle (57 percent)  -- are struggling, as is Tate (36 percent), who has regressed at the foul line from 2014-15 (52 percent). Lyle, Tate, Giddens, and Harris rank first, tied for second, fifth, and sixth on the team in free-throw attempts, so it would behoove them to bump up their percentages.

The Random

*For what it's worth, Ohio State is ranked 346th in the nation in kenpom's luck metric, which means the Buckeyes' fortunes have been particularly rotten in close games. The Buckeyes' three losses have come by a total of 18 points.

*Austin Grandstaff is going to be a future target of both opposing defenses (42 percent from three) and opposing student sections (Greg Paulus-y swag). Grandstaff has already shown he can get his shot off quickly, and he's got that white boy strut/enthusiasm that college-aged fans love to mock. The freshman from Texas will continue to get playing time so long as he hits shots and cuts down on fouling 3-point shooters.

*At times, Matta has gone to a center-less lineup. Matta was forced to go without a true five late against Memphis because Giddens and Thompson had fouled out, but the Ohio State coach also went small late against Texas-Arlington, with Tate (or Loving, depending on your point of view) functioning as the five. Matta has gone center-less in recent seasons, most notably with Deshaun Thomas/LaQuinton Ross playing the five in 2012-13 and Ross as the five in 2013-14. Given the strength of the undersized Tate and the length of Bates-Diop and Loving, Matta should be able to get away with super-small lineups again this season when the match-ups allow for that strategy.

The most important thing for Matta and his staff this season isn't advancing to the NCAA tournament; it's player development, specifically upgrading the games of Bates-Diop, Giddens, and Lyle. Reaching the Big Dance would be a nice bonus for this group of players, but everything in 2015-16 should be centered around building momentum for 2016-17. Next year, a return to Big Ten title contention and a top-4 NCAA seed should be attainable goals.