After a 4-5 start to the season (and unsightly home setbacks to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech), Ohio State has rebounded over the past two weeks to win four straight games. The Buckeyes will get one more game in before the calendar flips to 2016, as they open their conference slate on Wednesday night by hosting Minnesota.
So, where does Ohio State stand after completing the nonconference portion of its schedule? Here are four burning questions that need to be answered...
Is Keita Bates-Diop emerging as the team's best player?
Last season, the sophomore swingman scored in double figures four times and grabbed five or more rebounds on five occasions. Through 13 games this winter, Bates-Diop has reached double figures in 11 games -- he scored eight points in the two other games -- and has corralled five or more rebounds in 10 games. After his finest game as a Buckeye on Sunday against South Carolina State (career-best 24 points, five 3-pointers, 10 boards), KBD is averaging 16 points (on 49 percent shooting) and nearly nine rebounds over his last four tilts.
Marc Loving was Ohio State's top performer through the team's first nine games (18 points, nearly seven rebounds per game), but the junior has slumped recently, logging just 30 points on 11-of-38 shooting (3-of-17 from 3) and 14 rebounds in the Buckeyes' past four games. No Ohio State player possesses more talent than Bates-Diop, and the Buckeyes would be wise to up KBD's usage rate as team moves into conference play.
Can A.J. Harris steal minutes from JaQuan Lyle at point guard?
Lyle (28.5 minutes per game) is the clear choice over Harris (11.8), at the moment, but Harris has outperformed Lyle in two of Ohio State's last three games, with the most meaningful indication of the coaching staff's increasing trust in Harris coming with the 5-9 freshman netting the crunch-time minutes in the Buckeyes' upset win over Kentucky. Harris played a large role in limiting Tyler Ulis, Kentucky's stud sophomore point guard, to 4-of-12 shooting from the field. And while Harris is already a few steps ahead of Lyle defensively, Harris showed expanded confidence as a playmaker opposite South Carolina State, logging a season-high six assists and turning the ball over just once.
It's difficult to envision Harris supplanting Lyle as the starter at point guard -- the Buckeyes are playing well with Harris coming off the bench, and Thad Matta could make a reasoned argument that Harris is a better fit as a reserve right now -- but Lyle would be wise to show more consistency and conviction on the defensive end of the floor and as a ball handler, as the rookie from Evansville, Ind., has only recorded more assists than turnovers in about half of Ohio State's games. Of course, it should be noted that Harris has been loose with the ball as well, registering more turnovers than assists in eight contests.
What is Mickey Mitchell's role?
After missing Ohio State's first 11 games (10 due to a NCAA issue), the freshman forward from Texas has acquired 20 minutes of playing time over the Buckeyes' last two contests. Mitchell's stat line isn't much to look at right now, but we've seen glimpses of his passing vision and overall basketball acumen. Mitchell, who was allowed to practice with the team during his hiatus, seems to have a good grasp of his role on offense (move the ball, set screens) and defense, as he took a charge on his first-ever defensive possession and isn't getting lost when the Buckeye have to rotate on defense.
As long as Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens fail to find foul trouble in the same game, it appears Mitchell could absorb the minutes of reserve center David Bell, who has only seen garbage-time minutes in Ohio State's past two games. And as the season wears on, chances are we'll see more of Mixtape Mitchell.
Is an NCAA tournament berth in reach?
Probably not, though qualifying for the NIT is a much more reasonable ceiling for Ohio State than it was pre-Kentucky. One thing the Buckeyes do have going for them is that the Big Ten appears to be decidedly weaker as whole than in past seasons. The top of the conference is very, very good, with Michigan State and Purdue each ranked inside Kenpom's top five and Maryland not far behind at No. 15. Iowa (17th) and Indiana (24th) are solid, too. But as Inside the Hall noted on Monday, the rest of the conference leaves a lot to be desired.
Penn State (130th), Nebraska (131st), Minnesota (151st), and Rutgers (261st) endured dreadful non-conference slates, as did injury-ravaged Illinois (8-5) and stuck-in-upheaval Wisconsin (8-5). Northwestern is 12-1, but as ITH notes, the Wildcats haven't played anyone yet and center Alex Olah (12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) is out indefinitely with a stress fracture. Michigan (10-3) doesn't have a big man averaging more than 5.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.
With a tepid opening to the Big Ten season (home vs. Illinois, home vs. Minnesota, at Northwestern, at Indiana, home vs. Rutgers), Ohio State has a chance to alter the ceiling on its 2015-16 campaign.