The fact that Ohio State has started the season slowly isn't too much of a surprise, as basically everybody, including Thad Matta, admitted this would be a bit of a rebuilding year. Virtually everyone on the team is an underclassman, and many of the key contributors had never played in a college basketball game before this season. But even those with relatively modest expectations probably weren't expecting the Buckeyes to be sitting with a 4-5 record in mid-December. Any dreams of potentially contending for an NCAA bid seem out the window at this point.
The Buckeyes are occupying a very unfamiliar place in the Big Ten standings, but are things as bad as they seem? Are their biggest issues correctable, or is this already a bit of a lost season?
If there is any consolation to be had, it's in the fact that Ohio State hasn't lost to any actually bad teams. All five of Ohio State losses have come to teams currently in the top 100 of KenPom at the time of publication. Sure, losing to UT-Arlington (88) or Louisiana Tech (99) at home isn't great, but they were both close games, and with an exceptionally young team, they're understandable. Losing close games to Virginia (the top KenPom team) or in overtime to Memphis is also understandable. The Buckeyes have only really been boat-raced once, their most recent defeat at UConn. They looked pretty bad, sure, but UConn is also a solid tournament team, aand they were at home. It was the first true road game for this Ohio State team.
But if you lose, even in a close game, to every decent team you play, you don't have any quality wins. That's where the Buckeyes are now, as all four of the teams they've played have sub-200 KenPom rankings, including Grambling, who is the second to worst team in the entire country, at 350. The other thing those four programs (Mount Saint Marys, Grambling, VMI and Air Force) have in common? They're all really short, allowing Ohio State's young big men to have an outsized defensive influence. That won't be the case in Big Ten play.
The Buckeyes have four games left before Big Ten play, and three of them are against teams in the KenPom 150 (Mercer, Northern Illinois and ... yeah, Kentucky). B1G play starts relatively manageable for Ohio State, so we'll get an idea for whether this team can beat at least average competition pretty soon.
So why the struggles?
One big reason, and one that's been an issue for Buckeye teams in the past, is free throw shooting. The Buckeyes are shooting a woeful 65% from the stripe this season, near the bottom of the country, and missed free throws could have easily flipped the Memphis or UT-Arlington results. Some players, like Daniel Giddens, aren't likely to improve too much (even though he's been a pretty dreadful 28% so far), but others should. Jae'Sean State, who is shooting 50% from downtown (and taking about two a game) is only shooting 50% from the line. He struggled from the free throw line last season as well, but some modest improvement doesn't seem unreasonable. JaQuan Lyle is only shooting 57% from the stripe, which isn't a great number from your point guard. If those two players improve just marginally, that could mean 4-5 more points a game for Ohio State, which could easily swing a game or two.
Lyle himself might be the key to Ohio State's improvement this season. Replacing D'Angelo Russell is a tall task for anybody, but given Ohio State's youth up and down the roster, ball distribution and steady point guard play become even more important. Lyle hasn't been bad (8.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), but turnovers and an inability to consistently shoot have hampered Ohio State's offense. Lyle's threepoint shooting could improve a little bit (28%), but getting to the line more and converting just a little bit seems more likely. Lyle may have the highest offensive ceiling of any Buckeye player this season, but he hasn't come close to hitting it yet. How close he does will go a long ways towards determining what the Buckeyes can do in the Big Ten.
Ohio State will probably be inconsistent and be a little spotty with the basketball all season, since that is what young teams do, especially young teams with true freshman point guards, but it's possible some of the free throw and turnover issues could improve over time. Keita Bates-Diop is 1-10 over the last three games from downtown, that probably doesn't continue all season. JaQuan Lyle probably doesn't go the entire game without hitting a shot from the floor like he did against UConn too many more times. Marc Loving, who shot 46% from downtown a year ago, could get closer to that over the course of the season (he's shooting 36% now). There are a lot of potential smaller changes, that if they happen, can easily lead to a few more wins.
The Big Ten doesn't look quite as dominant as it did before the season, so there are some wins out there if the Buckeyes can execute. We'll have a better idea about their real ceiling in a few more weeks. Things aren't great now, but that doesn't mean it will finish that way.