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How optimistic should we be about Ohio State basketball?

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The Buckeyes have won 2 in a row and look alive for the first time all season. Can it stick?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

It must be Thad Matta’s tie.

In the two games since Ohio State’s head coach reversed his sartorial course and started donning neckwear again, the Buckeyes have emerged as victors. Back-to-back nail-biters against Michigan State and Nebraska broke a four game losing streak in conference play, and for the first time all season, Ohio State seems like a motivated and hungry basketball team.

Will the recent upswing in effort and a pair of Ws be enough to save what very recently looked like a lost season for the Buckeyes? That depends on a few key factors.

Free throws

Ohio State has been uninspiring at the charity stripe so far this season, making around two-thirds of their free throw attempts. One of the major exceptions to that trend came in the recent victory over Michigan State, in which the Buckeyes were lights-out from the line in the first half. They still only managed to finish 14-20 on those attempts, a 70% clip, but it was a promising start in an area that hasn’t looked good all year.

That number came back down to earth against Nebraska on Wednesday night. The Buckeyes shot just 7-16 from the free throw line, less than 44%; if they had even sniffed their middling season average, they wouldn’t have needed a Marc Loving layup at the buzzer to beat the Cornhuskers. Fixing the free throw percentage won’t turn Matta’s season around by itself, but it would go a long way towards making this Buckeye squad feel like a complete unit that could compete in games that stay close late.

Rebounding

A lot of things went disastrously wrong for the Buckeyes in their 89-66 drubbing against Wisconsin. One of those things was cleaning up the boards. Ohio State got out-rebounded 44-31 in that contest by the Badgers’ rangy big men, managing just 10 on offense compared to Wisconsin’s 21. It’s been a consistent problem for the Buckeyes all year, and an easy stat to point to when pondering just how this team managed to open the season 0-4 in conference play.

That got flipped on its head Wednesday against Nebraska. Besides leading the team in scoring and putting in the winning bucket, Marc Loving also led all players with 11 boards during the game. The Buckeyes pulled down 45 rebounds total, including 30 on defense—a huge factor in how they slammed the door shut in the second half and limited the Cornhuskers to just 26 points in the game’s final 20 minutes. If they can keep up that degree of effort and intensity when their opponents make mistakes, they’ll have something to build on going forward against a slate of gritty Big Ten opponents.

The Guy”

One of the cool parts about this year’s Buckeye team is just how evenly they spread the ball around. Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle, Kam Williams, and Marc Loving have all gotten their fair share of looks, with each having attempted more than 160 shots on the year to date. (Tate has led the way in total points and shooting percentage so far, though.) The last two games’ shot numbers are a decent microcosm of those four players’ sharing mentality: in order, we’ve had 11-12-6-6 against Michigan State and 12-12-13-12 against Nebraska.

The one thing missing from that equation, the thing that feels like it would be the missing piece to carry the Buckeyes into the NCAA tournament against decent odds, is someone who can step up and play lights-out at all the right moments. The guy who Ohio State will lean on in meaningful games that need a buzzer-beater, a late steal, a momentum-shifting three-pointer. It’s unclear who that superstar is for the Buckeyes, and that could be a problem. Tate’s probably the leading candidate—he does, after all, lead the team in points per game and minutes played—but even he has looked ready to take a backseat to teammates at times. (He’s neck-and-neck with Lyle and Trevor Thompson in usage rate, for example, and Thompson, who has the benefit of playing inside, has been the more efficient player by a wide margin.)

So what?

There’s an awful lot of basketball left to be played before we hit the conference tournament and the final decision about the NCAAs. Neither of Ohio State’s last two victories was pretty, but they count all the same, and being 2-4 in conference is worlds better than being 0-6 in conference. (In the business, we call that “Rutgers territory.”) There’s no reason to completely lose hope on the Buckeyes, especially given the effort shown this past week from top to bottom within the team. But whether putting a necktie on a coach is akin to putting lipstick on a pig remains to be seen.