Now is when head coach Thad Matta and fans of Ohio State basketball will begin to learn what kind of team the Buckeyes have this year. Ohio State, 6-0 on the young season, will face its stiffest test thus far on Wednesday night, travelling to Charlottesville to take on Virginia as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Cavaliers, who are also unbeaten through their first half-dozen games, are fresh off a tournament victory in the Emerald Coast Classic, and find themselves ranked No. 6 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches polls.
The Buckeyes have looked good for stretches this season, but finally put everything together for a full 40 minutes last Friday against Marshall. In a 111-70 pounding of the Thundering Herd, the scarlet and gray had six players score in double-figures, won the rebounding battle by nearly 2-to-1, and played solid defense to the tune of a 37.1 percent opponent shooting percentage.
Quality of opponents for Ohio State thus far could be working to inflate the team’s success. According to KenPom, the Buckeyes come in 21st in the country overall, but their opposition has an average ranking of 217, with Providence (No. 59) being the only one in the top 130.
Ohio State has six players averaging double-figures this season, showing a balanced offensive attack that can score in a variety of ways. This will be thoroughly tested by a Virginia defense that KenPom ranks the best in all of Division I in efficiency. The Cavaliers are yielding just over 40 points per game, and holding opponents to a tick above 30 percent shooting.
This matchup should serve as a quality barometer for the development of this Buckeye team in the season’s first month. As Matta and his squad prepare for a Big Ten conference season that is just a month away, Virginia is really the first step in getting the team battle-tested.
Numbers to know
Through six games, Ohio State has an average scoring margin of +20.2 per game, which is currently tops in the Big Ten. Though no doubt aided by the 41-point victory over Marshall, the number underscores a return of sorts to the program’s roots, as smothering defense has once again become a focal point.
KenPom ranks the Buckeyes 14th in the country in defensive efficiency, and the 58.8 points per game the team gives up is tied for 13th. Ohio State is on top of the statistical heap in the conference in both offensive and defensive field goal percentage thus far in the season, which is a far cry from where the program found itself a year ago.
As mentioned, Ohio State’s competition through the first six games hasn’t exactly been stellar, but neither has Virginia’s. The Cavaliers’ opponents thus far have an average KenPom ranking of 179, and like the Buckeyes, Providence has been the toughest team on the schedule.
Ohio State beat the Friars 72-67 in Columbus, and Virginia’s 63-52 victory over them on Saturday only appears marginally better, though it was played at a neutral site. This game will be as much a test for the Cavaliers as it is for the Buckeyes, a yardstick for measuring how far they really need to go be considered among the elite teams in the country.
Part of Virginia’s defensive prowess stems from its ability to guard the three-point line. Opponents are shooting a dismal 28.8 percent from deep against the Cavaliers, and for Ohio State to have a chance in this game, it will have to do better.
Led by Kam Williams’ scorching-hot 56.3 percent success rate behind the arc, the Buckeyes are shooting just under 40 percent from three as a team, averaging eight makes a game. The ability to stretch the defense has allowed more room to operate in the paint for the likes of Jae’Sean Tate and Trevor Thompson, both of whom are scoring at career-high clips.
Cast of characters
It’s been an interesting season so far for Lyle, the lone member of last year’s freshman class that is still a member of the program. After finding a quick seat on the bench in favor of C.J. Jackson in Ohio State’s first two games due to ball security concerns, the sophomore from Evansville has turned things on in a big way. Over the past four contests, Lyle is averaging 15 points, better than four rebounds and seven assists, and fewer than two turnovers per game.
That stretch of good play has helped the Buckeyes make up for the absence of Keita Bates-Diop, who has sat the past three games with an ankle injury. Without Bates-Diop, Lyle is by far the best playmaker on the team, using his big body to get into the paint where he can finish or kick out to an open shooter.
Ohio State’s lone senior was virtually invisible for a three-game stretch against North Carolina Central, Providence, and Western Carolina, failing to score in double digits in any of them. Yet the last two times out, he has helped pace the offense. After a 19-point effort against Jackson State, the former high school Mr. Basketball in Ohio put in a monster 20-point, 14-rebound game against Marshall.
On the season, Loving is averaging 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but his team-high 17 turnovers and mediocre 32 percent shooting from three-point range are a concern for a player that is already battling the image of an underachiever during his career. The big stage against Virginia makes for a perfect time to begin proving the doubters wrong.
With the departure of All-American Malcolm Brogdon after last season, this Virginia team now firmly belongs to Perrantes. The senior from Los Angeles who was an honorable mention All-ACC performer a year ago is among the most solid point guards in the country, and appears on the Cousy Award watch list.
Perrantes averages 9.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 26.8 minutes per game for head coach Tony Bennett, shooting 37 percent from the three-point line. He also doesn’t turn the ball over, tallying just six miscues in six games, and plays excellent perimeter defense.
Memphis transfer Austin Nichols was expected to pick up a big chunk of the scoring void left by Brogdon, but was dismissed from the team after playing in just a single game. Thompson, who is in his second season with the Cavaliers after transferring from Tennessee, has stepped up instead. The only Virginia player with a double-figure scoring average, the junior from Murfreesboro gives the ‘Hoos 10 points and 2.7 boards a night, and is second on the team in assists.
Thompson, just 6-foot-4, is shooting nearly 57 percent from the field, and he’s making better than 47 percent of his attempts from three-point range. Along with Perrantes, Thompson will give the Ohio State backcourt plenty to contend with on the defensive end.
How to watch
Game time: 9:15 p.m. ET
Radio: WBNS 97.1 FM
TV: ESPN2 (Dave Flemming & Dan Dakich)