The Ohio State men’s basketball team won’t be winning a regular season Big Ten title in 2015, but conference hardware could still be in the Buckeyes’ not-so-distant future.
OSU dropped to No. 24 — just a one-spot slide — in the Associated Press top 25 on Monday after losing to Michigan State on Saturday. That loss put the Buckeyes at 19-7 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten, well out of reach of Wisconsin’s 23-2 overall record and 11-1 Big Ten mark.
But, unlike football, there’s more than one way to win a Big Ten basketball title, and OSU could be poised to do just that with a strong finish to the regular season and a run in the conference tournament.
1. Keep on riding play of the youngster(s)
Nobody will question it. Freshman guard D’Angelo Russell is OSU’s best player.
Through the first 26 games — all starts — of his collegiate career, Russell has averaged 19.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists. As a 6-foot-5-inch rookie, he leads the Buckeyes in two of the three most important statistical categories (senior guard Shannon Scott averages 6.2 assists).
And just to put some extra frosting on the cake, he shoots 43 percent from 3-point range and turns the ball over less than three times per game.
In the Big Ten, Russell’s numbers have only gotten better, as he’s averaged 20.5 points, 7 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 13 conference games, making him the best on the team in all three categories. He even has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4 in the conference which is, again, best on the team.
He’s not only OSU’s clear-cut best player, but one of the best in the nation, and if the Buckeyes keep riding his production, he’ll have a great shot at leading them to conference glory before (probably) heading to the NBA.
Oh, and just a heads up, the guy who has been OSU’s second-most important player in Big Ten play is another freshman, forward Jae’Sean Tate. He’s averaging 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in conference play and has become a reliable spark plug since entering the starting lineup.
2. If they have to play small, play small
Senior centers Amir Williams and Trey McDonald have combined to average 7.5 rebounds per game this season, which is considerably less than the combined average of OSU’s starting guards, Russell and Scott.
Inside presence has been, well, not a presence at all for most of OSU’s season, and while the Buckeyes fared well with redshirt-senior forward Anthony Lee in the starting lineup, they’re at their best with none of the three on the court.
It’ll be hard to do when other top teams in the conference have a size advantage (read: Wisconsin’s 7-foot senior star Frank Kaminsky), but a combination of Russell, Scott, Tate, senior forward Sam Thompson and sophomore forward Marc Loving might be the Buckeyes’ best chance to win week in and week out.
3. Speaking of Marc Loving
Loving returned from a three-game suspension in the loss to the Spartans on Saturday, but basically didn’t play any significant minutes and didn’t impact the game.
If OSU wants to win going forward, that’ll have to change.
Sure, the Buckeyes went 2-1 when he was out of the lineup, but when the Big Ten Tournament rolls around, a 2-1 record means a loss in the semifinals.
Whatever Loving did, it didn’t warrant a particularly lengthy suspension, and therefore probably shouldn’t warrant a big decrease in playing time. He’s OSU’s second-best offensive player and currently shoots about 53 percent from 3-point range.
Russell can carry the team, but the Buckeyes need to get Loving back in the mix as a second option to score the basketball.
4. Someone please find Kam Williams
The redshirt-freshman guard lit the world on fire in non-conference play, then completely disappeared.
Sure, Russell and Loving can score plenty of baskets, but neither of them have the same sort of spark-plug impact off the bench that Kam Williams brought early in the season.
He’s shooting about 38 percent from long range, but only 26 percent in Big Ten play. And in the conference overall, he’s shooting just 33 percent from the field, and doesn’t average a full rebound, assist or steal per game.
Yes, OSU has other options, but the Buckeyes know exactly what Kam Williams can do, and coach Thad Matta needs to find a way to bring out his best as postseason play approaches.
5. Make free throws
Missing free throws is probably the thing that makes basketball coaches momentarily turn into fire-breathing dragons more than anything else.
And the Buckeyes miss a lot of free throws.
A 68 percent clip from the charity stripe overall and a 63 percent clip in Big Ten play are not good enough. The Buckeyes have a few good shooters, but players like Thompson (63 percent) and Tate (54 percent) have to improve.
If not for Matta’s well-being, the Buckeyes need to make their free throws in order to make a run and eventually win the conference tournament.
OSU is scheduled to return to the court against Michigan on Sunday in Ann Arbor. Tip off is set for 1 p.m. After their matchup with the Wolverines, the Buckeyes will have four more conference games before the Big Ten Tournament begins on March 11 in Chicago.