The Ohio State basketball team is ranked No. 2 in the nation, and some are wondering why. It’s a fair argument. Much of their early season slate has been less than spectacular in terms of difficulty. Their leading scorer averages less than 14 points per game. Last night didn’t alleviate very much of that head-scratching with a hard-fought 76-64 victory at The Schott where the Bucks allowed Delaware to hang around for the entire game. So, where do the Buckeyes belong? With the Big Ten opener less than two weeks away, the Buckeyes are about to find out if their ranking is indeed too lofty.
The Buckeyes are where they are because of their defense. How good are they? Try 1st in adjusted defensive rating (per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings) by a whopping 2.7 points at 87.3 points per 100 possessions, 2nd in field goal percentage defense (40.1%), and 1st in 3-point defense at 23.2%. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are the best defensive backcourt in the nation. Amir Williams is proving to be a more consistent presence in the paint blocking shots, and the Bucks may have the most solid nine-deep group of defenders that they’ve had under Thad Matta. Even when that offense struggles, Ohio State can make that pale in comparison by holding teams without a field goal for four or six or eight minutes at a time. At times, it’s not a pretty brand of basketball, but it does get the job done nearly all of the time.
They have leadership. Craft and Smith Jr. are three-year starters1. Scott, Williams, and Thompson have played significant minutes for two seasons. Of their nine rotation players, six of them played at least 16 minutes per night during last season’s Elite Eight run. Sure, the Bucks lost their leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas and a quality big in Evan Ravenel, but this team is still largely intact.
That’s why Ohio State’s ranked as high as they are. That and their 11-0 record. But, if they hope to stay up there, they need to continue to find offensive success easier. A big part of that is going to be the roles of LaQuinton Ross past and LaQuinton Ross present. The present is the junior stretch forward that needs to be the scarlet and gray’s leading scorer for this team to be at its best. In the first five games of the season, he had fans terrified with an anemic 31 points on 10-of-44 shooting (23%). Since then, however, Q has been much more of the guy that gave the Buckeyes a key boost in the second half of last year. He’s missed double figures just once in the last six games, averaging 17.7 points on 40-of-70 (57.1%) shooting. Ross is the one of the team’s three legit three-point threats (along with Smith Jr. and Amadeo Della Valle), and he’s the best at creating his own shot on the drive, pulling up, and finishing in traffic with contact. To go anywhere, the Buckeyes need Q to take them there on offense and help beat the near-constant zone defenses they’ll face.
Then, there’s the now-vacant role that Ross filled off the bench of lightning in a bottle scoring. Thad Matta had both Deshaun Thomas and Ross both fill this role early in their OSU careers, and now he has another player capable of doing it, freshman Marc Loving. The Toledo St. John product was a Top 100, 4-star recruit coming into the year, and with fellow Top 100 recruit shooting guard Kam Williams contracting mono and setting him back, Loving’s the only palpable addition to the OSU squad to this point. In just under 13 minutes per game, Loving is averaging 6.6 points on 46.7% shooting. In the last three contests, Loving has 27 points in just 39 minutes. He also happens to be the best free throw shooter on a pretty bad foul shooting team (24-of-29). If Loving can fill that consistent bench firepower role, it will really help the Buckeyes out as they hit the Big Ten grind and beyond.
Sticking with teh bench, if there’s a player that I didn’t expect much from at all, it’s sophomore Amadeo Della Valle. Last night’s performance, however, showed that ADV is far from a one-dimensional shooter. Della Valle joined four other Buckeyes in double digits, scoring 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, grabbing 3 boards and blocking 2 shots in 15 minutes. The play that really struck me was one in which Della Valle was knocked to the floor trying to take a charge to no avail. He hurried to his feet, grabbed a defensive rebound, and took the ball coast to coast for a layup while drawing a foul. Amadeo’s strength will remain outside shooting, but being able to keep defenders honest by attacking the bucket and then making things happen on the defensive end will earn him consistent bench minutes.
Finally, I’ve already seen the role players grow in the offseason and early season. Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, and Sam Thompson all seem to have more confidence in their games. Scott continues to hang neck-and-neck with Craft in the team lead for both assists and steals while pushing the ball effectively in the open court. Thompson’s high-flying act is always open for business, but he continues to improve on D and in mid-range shooting. I’ve already mentioned Amir’s defense, but his offense is a real aspect this year. A poor rebounder for his size in the past, Amir posted his 3rd double-double of the season against Delaware last night.
Is Ohio State overrated? Probably, but I also don’t think they’re leaving the Top 10 anytime soon. Defense, coaching, experience, and talented stretch fours all play their part in that determination. Ohio State’s already passed early season tests at Marquette and versus Maryland. Notre Dame provides one more on Saturday in New York City before the daunting Big Ten slate begins.
(Photo: Greg Bartram/USA Today)
- Craft is basically a four-year starter. Dallas Lauderdale started the games in 2010-2011, but Craft played 30 minutes per night as the super sixth man on that short Matta bench. [↩]