Ohio State lost to North Carolina by 14 points on Saturday, a result that would have been unsurprising if someone told you about it four months or four days ago.
That Saturday result notwithstanding, Ohio State’s been a bit better than we all predicted coming into the season.
I have the Buckeyes solidly in the middle of the pack in an underwhelming Big Ten conference, but this was a team that looked like it could have been near the bottom coming into the year. KenPom had them at No. 78 at the start of the season, and they’re up to No. 45 now.
An important caveat here is that Ohio State hasn’t really beat anyone. The Buckeyes’ best win so far is over Michigan in a 20-point comeback on Dec. 4. They lost badly to Gonzaga, by 1 point to Butler in overtime, by 14 points at home to Clemson and by 14 in a neutral environment to North Carolina. Still, compared to the extremely low expectations placed upon Ohio State when Thad Matta exited along with Marc Loving, Trevor Thompson and JaQuan Lyle after a 17-15 finish last season, it’s easy to be somewhat optimistic about Ohio State’s future.
Chris Holtmann came in with a large — by Ohio State standards, at least — rebuild in front of him. The former Butler coach secured the commitment of Kyle Young, who originally committed to Holtmann’s Bulldogs before deciding to follow him to Columbus, and kept Kaleb Wesson, who committed under Matta. The latter has been a crucial part of Ohio State’s season so far. Wesson is one of four Buckeyes who average double-digit scoring with 12 points per game, and is second on the team in advanced stats Box Plus-Minus and Player Efficiency rating. The 6-foot-9 newcomer is Ohio State’s best post threat.
“I think he’ll get to the point where he’ll demand a double-team most games,” Holtmann told reporters after Wesson had 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting against William and Mary on Dec. 9. “That’s not the case right now because he’s not strong enough probably. But I do think later in his career he’ll be a guy that will demand a double-team most nights out, and his passing will really allow us to play through that.”
Upperclassmen Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate and junior college transfer C.J. Jackson are around to make things easier for the team’s younger players, Bates-Diop especially. The junior is Ohio State’s go-to scorer, averaging 18 points per game while still leading the team in PER and BPM. Holtmann has the group playing better on both ends, but defense is where the Buckeyes made a big jump. After ranking 99th in defensive efficiency per KenPom’s metrics last season, Ohio State is 55th so far this campaign.
This group has Ohio State contending for an NCAA Tournament bid after missing the NIT last season. It’s no sure thing. DieHards’ bracketology has the Buckeyes as a bubble team, and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has them in his “Next Four Out.” A tournament bid would be huge for Holtmann to be able to sell the a quick program resurgence to recruits and fans.
At 10-4, Ohio State doesn’t have to be perfect through conference play, but it can’t afford to slip up in a weak conference. Hosting Michigan State on Jan. 7 will be a tough game, but a loss there won’t cost the Buckeyes. Instead, what they should aim for in conference play is a lack of bad losses combined with a few wins over teams that occupy the same middle-of-the-road space they do. It’s silly to classify any game as must-win in December, but vs. Maryland, at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota in New York and at Michigan in February are where we’ll likely find out what Ohio State’s made of. The Buckeyes likely need to win at least two of those to have a shot, assuming they only suffer another loss or two against lesser Big Ten teams.
Anyway, let’s rank the Big Ten teams.
1. Michigan State
12-1 (2-0 Big Ten)
Spartans are still on top of the Big Ten. They stomped Houston Baptist and Long Beach State last week, scoring in the triple-digits against Houston Baptist and Long Beach State. Cleveland State and Savannah State are up next, so Michigan State might not be done hanging 100s on folks.
12-2 (2-0 Big Ten)
Purdue crushed Tennessee State 97-48 in its only game last week. Advanced stats still love the Boilermakers, and another easy win over Lipscomb this week won’t change that.
11-3 (1-1 Big Ten)
Michigan had an easy 97-47 win over Alabama A&M last week. The Wolverines’ defense has been their biggest strength so far. Only three opponents have shot 50 percent or higher against Michigan, and each of those came in an easy Michigan win.
11-3 (1-1 Big Ten)
Minnesota’s 10-day layoff following its 1-point escape against Drake seemed to do some good. The Gophers had a 14-point win over Oral Roberts and a 35-point win over Florida Atlantic last week, which could help right the ship heading into conference play.
11-3 (1-1 Big Ten)
Maryland easily dispatched lowly Farleigh-Dickinson in its lone game last week, even without Justin Jackson, Michal Cekovsky or Dion Wiley. UMBC looms before the Terps resume Big Ten play against Penn State on Jan 2.
6. Ohio State
10-4 (2-0 Big Ten)
The Wildcats suffered a 104-78 loss to Oklahoma, which was Northwestern’s final nonconference test. That’s a missed opportunity for a team that once again did not look competitive against a quality opponent.
8. Penn State
10-4 (1-1 Big Ten)
The Nittany Lions suffered a baaaaad nonconference loss to Rider on Friday by a score of 71-70. Rider had already lost to Robert Morris, Drexel and Hofstra, and is No. 165 in KenPom’s rankings.
7-6 (1-1 Big Ten)
Any good will the Hoosiers gained by upsetting Notre Dame is already gone. Indiana followed up that thrilling win with a 20-point loss to Fort Wayne. Yikes.
6-7 (1-1 Big Ten)
The Badgers still haven’t lost to a “bad team” necessarily, but the sheer number of losses they’ve suffered looks real bad. Wisconsin beat Green Bay this week, and have a favorable stretch against Chicago State, UMass-Lowell, Indiana, Rutgers and Nebraska coming up. This is Wisconsin’s chance to get things going before a road game against Purdue on Jan. 16.
9-5 (1-1 Big Ten)
The Huskers had fairly easy wins over UTSA and Delaware State last week. A Jan. 2 game against Northwestern is Nebraska’s chance to make some movement.
9-5 (0-2 Big Ten)
Illinois beat Missouri for its best win of the season on Saturday. That came after the Illini lost to New Mexico State last week, but still.
Some easier opponents allowed Iowa to distance itself from losing six of seven games from late November to early December. The Hawkeyes have won four games in a row, and a game against Michigan on Jan. 2 will be its next big test.
Rutgers followed up its own big win over Seton Hall with…an overtime loss to Stony Brook.
Week 7 MVP
Going with my Ohio State theme, I’m putting Keita Bates-Diop here. He had 26 points in Ohio State’s loss to North Carolina, and had 17 points on 11 shots in a win over The Citadel.
Game to watch for Week 8
There are no good games this week. Go watch the NBA instead.
See you back here on Monday!