There was no reason to believe Ohio State would stand a chance against Michigan State when the season began.
At least, that’s what many in the college basketball world believed.
But on Sunday, in a season that has continued to defy preseason expectations, the Buckeyes beat the top-ranked Spartans 80-64. Following the win, Ohio State remained in first place in the Big Ten standings with a spotless 4-0 record, and its 13-4 overall record is tied for fourth-best in the conference.
No one anticipated the season would turn out the way it has for the Buckeyes. But why was that?
Part of the concern was that last season was abysmal by Ohio State’s standards. Its 17-15 overall record and 7-11 Big Ten record was its worst since the 2003-04 season. When the team fell behind to opponents, it struggled to make comebacks, and it lost to opponents it held a clear advantage over teams like Florida Atlantic, Illinois, Nebraska and Rutgers, the latter of which had come in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Another avenue of concern for Ohio State was that it lost three of its five most productive players from the year prior with Marc Loving graduating, JaQuan Lyle quitting and transferring and Trevor Thompson forgoing his senior year to go to the NBA Draft. All three were in the top four for points and were regular starters.
And while redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop was returning from injury, his health was going to be an unknown for the team, as was his production considering he only averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while healthy in 2016-17.
There also were the depth concerns. Head coach Chris Holtmann brought in three recruits — guard Musa Jallow, center Kaleb Wesson and forward Kyle Young — as well as graduate transfer guard Andrew Dakich, all of whom were expected to be the primary bench players. It appeared Wesson would have to play plenty of minutes given the shallow depth at center, with sophomore Micah Potter the only returning center, and Dakich would spend plenty of time relieving junior C.J. Jackson, the only true point guard on the team.
Many of these concerns have been alleviated to this point.
Though it lost three key players, Bates-Diop and Jackson have stepped up and become the two most productive offensive players for the team, with the former emerging as a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Last season’s most prolific scorer, senior forward Jae’Sean Tate, has continued to produce for the Buckeyes at a similar rate (12.9 points per game this season compared to 14.3 last year) while not being as heavily leaned on by the team.
The freshmen trio have all played key roles for the team this season. Wesson filled in as the starter at center while Potter dealt with a lingering ankle injury, and ran away with the job, averaging 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Jallow has occasionally started at shooting guard in place of redshirt senior Kam Williams. And while his offensive production is not impressive to this point, Jallow has played strong defense while on the court. While Young has not had a ton of minutes, he is an accurate shooter when he gets his chance (41.4 field-goal percentage) and has been able to eat minutes for any of the forwards or centers on the team.
The result has been a team that has vastly exceeded preseason expectations. It has not lost to any team it should have and has defeated half of the top-100 opponents it has played this season, including its most recent win to then-No. 1 Michigan State.
A team that entered the season ranked as the 78th-best team in the country by Ken Pomeroy now ranks No. 33 on his website. It ranks as both a top-40 offense and defense this season after ranking No. 60 in offense last year and No. 99 in defense, according to Pomeroy. The Buckeyes are currently projected to finish with a 22-9 record, 13-5 in conference play. However, they are favored to win all but three games in a game-by-game breakdown.
The college basketball world had every reason to doubt Ohio State before the season. But as the season wore on and the only losses came to top-tier opponents, it began to appear Ohio State might be a better team than many expected.
Now that Ohio State has upset the top team in the nation, it is fair to think the Buckeyes are better than most expected.