Ohio State has not been a team that relies on 3-point shooting this season.
Its offensive strength has come from the ability of its forwards to find space inside and to outscore opponents by significant margins in the paint.
The Buckeyes strayed from that identity Thursday, however, attempting 40 triples in their game against South Dakota State. They tried to live and die by the 3. They nearly died.
Despite the fact its inefficient 3-point shooting nearly cost Ohio State the game, the team might have to go back to that strategy and hope for more success when the fifth-seeded Buckeyes return to the court Saturday to face fourth-seeded Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are a team without many clear flaws. Gonzaga is bigger than Ohio State and is one of the best post teams in the nation — both offensively and defensively. It has the sixth-best rebounding margin of any team in the nation and averages the 12th-most points per game and 48th-fewest points allowed.
There is one potential weakness Ohio State can exploit: Gonzaga’s struggles defending shots from long range.
The Bulldogs have allowed opposing teams to make 34.9 percent of shots from 3 this season, 164th in the nation. In all but one of its four losses, Gonzaga allowed teams to make at least 47 percent of 3-point attempts.
Despite Gonzaga’s issues defending triples, teams have not always tried to bludgeon them from beyond the arc. No team has attempted as many as the 40 shots from 3 Ohio State attempted Thursday, and only six times have opponents even attempted at least 25 3s.
That strategy was not lost on Ohio State in the first matchup. The Buckeyes attempted 20 shots from 3, but only six landed.
At times, Ohio State has been a strong 3-point shooting team. At others, it has not. It has made over 40 percent of 3s in 10 of its 33 games and has four times reached double-digit makes. However, nine times this season Ohio State has made fewer than 30 percent of 3s and three times fewer than 20 percent.
This inconsistent shooting trend was perfectly exemplified during its first-round matchup with South Dakota State.
Ohio State made just two of its first nine attempts from beyond the arc before knocking down six of its next eight attempts from long range. The Buckeyes made just four of their final 23 3-point shots.
The one constant between a majority of the attempts was that South Dakota State tended to ease off the Buckeyes and allow them to attempt the 3s. The Jackrabbits seemed comfortable letting Ohio State rattle off 40 shots — a strategy that seemed to work with Ohio State missing 28 of them.
Part of the reason Ohio State might have been shooting so frequently from 3 against South Dakota State is because the Jackrabbits are a group that thrives using that offensive style. They attempted 31 3s with 13 makes in the game, leading to a tie for the most 3-point attempts by two teams in an NCAA Tournament game. This season, their 39.3 3-point make percentage ranks 25th in the nation.
When faced off against an opponent that likes to attempt a lot of 3s, Ohio State has often tried to mirror the approach.
While it won’t be facing a team that lives and dies by the 3, Ohio State will need to be ready for an opponent that can score from deep if given the chance. Gonzaga has made 37 percent of 3-point shots, but relies more heavily on its post play to pick up points. The team has reached double-digit made-3-pointers in 16 of its 35 games and finds that 32 percent of its total points come from 3s, just slightly more than the average team in the country.
Ohio State will not need to be making 3s to keep up with another team that will be shooting them all night. But Gonzaga’s offense is one that will be tough to slow down inside and can burn the team outside as well.
The Buckeyes can’t afford to abandon their 3-point shooting. Facing a team like Gonzaga that is so strong inside defensively and can be beat from long range, making 3s will be a critical part of scoring.
However, Gonzaga is so efficient offensively that the Buckeyes can’t have another game where they miss 28 3-pointers. Against the 12th-seeded Jackrabbits, the Buckeyes can live missing wide-open 3s.
It won’t if that happens again Saturday against Gonzaga.