Several weaknesses were exposed in OSU’s first conference loss. They may be causes for worry as Big Ten play heats up.
Even though the Buckeyes struggled last Sunday to put away the not-very-good Nebraska Cornhuskers in overtime, I still expected them to beat a pretty-good Hoosier team Thursday night. Not only did the Bucks lose by 16, but their 51 total points were by far the worst offensive performance of the season, the previous low being 65 in the loss to Xavier. I think that we saw some trouble spots laid bare.
Disclaimer: In saying what I’m about to say, I realize fully that the Buckeyes are still rusty from a COVID-19 hiatus in the season that lasted from the December 11 victory over Wisconsin (when the Bucks looked very sharp) until the January 2 contest in Lincoln. It will take a while, presumably, for Ohio State to regain the form that they displayed against the Badgers. Additionally, there are still injuries that leave the Bucks somewhat shorthanded. Justice Sueing, Jr. is the primary one; the Bucks could sure use his versatility. But Seth Towns, who could provide some size, has yet to play, and Kyle Young has been ailing of late.
Ohio State turned the ball over 15 times against Indiana, 16 against Nebraska. For the season, they average 13 turnovers a game, to their opponents’ 10.8. Successful teams win the turnover battle, just as they win the rebound battle. Of the Buckeye ball-handlers, only Jamari Wheeler has more assists than turnovers, 50 to 22. We like to see a 2-1 ratio of assists to turnovers for guards, but Malaki Branham, Meechie Johnson, and Cedric Russell all have more TOs than assists. Somewhat curiously, E.J. Liddell leads the team in turnovers (by a fairly large margin), with 38. Granted, he plays a lot of minutes, but the high number of TOs also result from how much of his game is spent outside, at the top of the arc.
Guarding the opponents’ big men
By any measure Indiana’s Trace Jackson-Davis is a star player. He’s 6-9 (at least), can run and jump, has great hands and moves. Thursday night, he ate up the Buckeye defense. Zed Key was supposed to contain him, but got into early foul trouble and then really never found his way off the bench. Liddell, Kyle Young, and Joey Brunk also gave it a whirl, but Jackson-Davis was too quick, too good for any of them. He finished with 27 points (on 11 for 17 shooting from the floor, including several impressive dunks), 12 rebounds, and five blocks. I worry about Big Ten big men down the road. Kofi Cockburn doesn’t have Jackson-Davis’s quickness, but he has other assets. Who, among the Buckeye front court, is going to take him on?
Is E.J. Liddell still a one-man show?
When Malaki Branham poured in 35 against the Huskers, I thought that Ohio’s Mr. Basketball would now take some of the scoring pressure off of Liddell. And, in fact, Branham did lead the Bucks in scoring against Indiana, putting in 13 points on 5-13 shooting, 1-3 from 3-point range. Nevertheless, Liddell is still the only Buckeye averaging double figures in scoring. After his 18.9 average, we find Key at 9.4, Young and Branham averaging 9.3, Justin Ahrens with 8.2, Wheeler at 6.8, and Johnson with 6.7. Good balance, I guess. But what happens when Liddell goes cold, as he did against both Nebraska and Indiana? Branham saved the day once. But not twice. If the opposition’s defense can take Liddell out of his game, can the Bucks survive?
Live or die with three-pointers
At the conclusion of the Ohio State-Indiana game, Jackson-Davis, in his interview, talked about the potent Buckeye three-point offense, about how many shooters there are on the team and how tough it is to guard them all. And he’s right. The Buckeyes, so far this season, have been a good shooting team: .475 from the floor overall, .387 from beyond the arc. That’s very good. And when your opponents are only hitting treys at a .306 clip, you’ve got a great advantage. Until you go 8-27, as in Bloomington, and you can’t keep pace.
Young, Branham, Ahrens, and Wheeler are all hitting more than 40% of their long shots. That’s phenomenal. Someone’s got to be hot, right? So, what’s the problem? Well, Ahrens and Young are both listed as “forwards.” Yet, Young puts up about five threes a game, and Ahrens has shot only twice (missed both) from inside the arc. All of his made field goals are threes. And Liddell? Though he’s hitting only about 32% of his threes, he’s taken 44 of them for the season. The point is that these “big men” are often playing outside.
Points in the paint?
Directly related to the last issue is the difficulty that Ohio State seems to have sometimes scoring inside. The Indiana game is a recent – and drastic – example, but the Hoosiers outscored the Bucks in the paint, 38-10. With few points inside and the outside shots rimming out, you end up with 51 points and an “L.” Obviously, Key needs to do more inside, and Young, a strong rebounder, needs to get some put backs. And, though I’m reluctant to say it, I’d like to see Liddell playing more inside.
The Buckeyes hold a slight rebounding edge over their opponents, 36.4 to 33.3. It should be higher. With the big gap in shooting percentages between Ohio State and their foes, the Bucks have many more opportunities for defensive rebounds. They’re not getting them, though. Buckeye opponents have more offensive rebounds than the Bucks, 129-104. Why? Because the OSU bigs are playing outside. Indiana outrebounded the Bucks, 41-33.
Just as it was last season, the Ohio State front court game is the weakness. Maybe it can be hidden with superb outside shooting. Maybe not. The Buckeyes will be facing a lot of inside play during the conference schedule. Whether they can defend and score in the paint will be the key to the season.