Just two weeks ago, Ohio State basketball appeared to be dead in the water. After back-to-back losses to Maryland and Wisconsin, Thad Matta's team sat at just 14-10, and the NCAA Tournament couldn't have looked further out of reach.
Fast forward three games, and that record is 17-10, with conference wins against Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan in the books. Granted, that's hardly a who's-who of talent -- in that group, only the Wolverines have a conference record above .500 -- but things are trending positively for the Buckeyes at a time when the going is about to get really tough. The problem is that it just might be too little, too late.
The tournament certainly isn't out of reach for the Buckeyes as things stand now. Still, as our Matt Brown wrote the other day, they'll need to really impress down the stretch to have a good shot at cracking the field of 68. That starts, or continues, with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska is just 14-13 on the season, sitting at ninth in the conference, and if there's one thing to be said for Tim Miles' team, it's that they're at least consistent. The Huskers have pretty much beaten everyone they're supposed to beat, and with the exception of an aberrant win over a talented Michigan State team in January, have lost to everyone they should lose to.
At the moment, the Buckeyes are probably a team that the Huskers should lose to. Marc Loving responded to a scoreless dud against Rutgers with a double-double against Michigan in Ohio State's most recent tilt; five different Buckeyes scored in double figures against the Wolverines, meaning distribution doesn't seem to be too much of a problem at the moment. Matta's team has also found some semblance of a rhythm from behind the arc, hitting 37.5% and 35.7% of their shots from deep across the last two games, compared to just 15% and 20.8% by their opponents.
Still, there are kinks to be worked out that could spell trouble, if not against a middling team like Nebraska, then down the stretch against Iowa and in a brace of matchups with Michigan State. In 19 of 27 games this season, the Buckeyes have had more turnovers than assists. That doesn't bode well for the rest of the regular season. Even Nebraska turns the ball over less than the Buckeyes, and while it's not astonishing that such a young team has had issues with protecting the ball, it's still something that's going to need to change if Matta's team is to have an outside shot at the tourney.
Tim Miles' squad, meanwhile, certainly won't roll over for the Buckeyes, even if their own tournament hopes have pretty much been dashed. Junior guard Andrew White is the linchpin of the Huskers' offense, averaging more than 17 PPG and shooting above 50% from the floor while maintaining the best free throw and 3-point percentages of any player getting significant minutes, as well as leading the team in rebounds. The Buckeyes will need to have an answer for him to keep the Huskers from hanging around; beyond White, it'll be key for Ohio State to lock down players like senior F Shavon Shields, whose numbers are almost as impressive as White's, and Tai Webster, White's Kiwi-born backcourt mate.
Numbers to know
One of the hallmarks of this young Buckeye team, aside from its turnover woes, is its lack of discipline from the charity stripe. At 66.1%, Ohio State is making just under two-thirds of its free throw attempts, which isn't ideal. There are some outliers, certainly -- Jae'Sean Tate's 52% and Jaquan Lyle's 67% don't help matters, and obscure the lights-out shooting of Keita Bates-Diop and Kam Williams from the line -- but Nebraska doesn't have a single regular contributor making less than 70% of his free throws, and most are well above that. If this one ends up closer than it should be, free throws might just be the reason why.
Through 27 games, four Buckeyes (Loving, Bates-Diop, Tate, and Lyle) are averaging more than 10 points per game. Having that many regular contributors able to get buckets makes things a little easier for Thad Matta's squad, as nights like Marc Loving's goose egg against Rutgers are less devastating when other scorers are adept at picking up the slack. Tim Miles' team has less room for error, as just two players average double-digit scoring totals. For Nebraska, cut off the head and the body will die.
As of Thursday, Nebraska comes in at No. 91 in the KenPom rankings. Ohio State, by contrast, is up to 66. While the game obviously still has to be played on the court, the numbers give a pretty decent look at how the teams stack up. Ohio State can actually be expected to score fewer points than Nebraska per 100 possessions when opponent is controlled for (105.3 to 109.8), but is also much stingier on defense, expected to allow 95.3 points per 100 possessions (again, controlled for opponent) compared to Nebraska's 102.0. The full KenPom data is worth checking out for a deeper dive into just how the two teams look.
Cast of characters
You could make the argument that KBD has been Ohio State's most complete player across the 2015-2016 season. He doesn't jump off the TV screen as a dominating force, but he quietly does just about everything pretty well. He's second in points, first in rebounds, third in blocks, and is stingy with his turnovers. The 6'7 forward out of Illinois is about as versatile as they come for this year's Buckeye squad. He's almost the exact same size as Shavon Shields, who could prove to be an interesting matchup for KBD if Shields does play.
Williams, a 6'2 sophomore guard, has been crucial as the Buckeyes' go-to deep threat this season. While he doesn't take shots from beyond the arc with the volume of previous sharpshooters like Jon Diebler, he has become pretty reliable from distance. Across the last eight games, WIlliams is making an even 50% of his three-point attempts, and that's a trend that the Buckeyes would like to continue. He can be streaky, but on his "on" nights, it's awfully nice to have him in Scarlet and Gray.
As mentioned above, White really is the do-it-all guy for the Huskers. The Kansas transfer is the most prolific scorer that Miles has, including a 35-point outburst last weekend against Penn State, good for half of his team's points. He's recorded double-digit scoring totals in 23 of 27 games this season, buoyed by his dangerous three-point shooting. Half of his shot attempts on the season have come from behind the arc, and he's making them at a 43% clip. White's a force to be reckoned with.
Shields has missed Nebraska's last three games after taking a hard fall on February 6, toward the tail end of a Huskers win against Rutgers. His status for this weekend's tilt with Ohio State is uncertain -- the same thing that was said before their mid-week contest against Indiana -- but if Shields does play and isn't too hampered by his neck strain/concussion combo, he's someone else worth watching. Shields, a Danish-American, has put up some impressive numbers this year, averaging just over 15 points per game while playing about 30 minutes a night.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: Sirius 93, XM 195