Throughout the nonconference, Ohio State was riddled with inconsistencies.
The Buckeyes lost four straight games from Nov. 20 through Dec. 1 with two of those defeats coming to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. They won their next two games by an average of 25.5 points.
Ohio State was romped at Connecticut on Dec. 12, falling 75-55. Thad Matta’s team responded seven days later with a seven-point win over then-No. 4 Kentucky.
The young Buckeyes relied on the three-point shot in that win over the Wildcats, connecting on 9 of 18 attempts from deep. They followed that performance with a dismal 3 of 22 showing.
“We’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Matta said. “I think that we’ve shown that we can play some really bad basketball, but we’ve shown that we can play some really good basketball. We’re a team that has to be dialed in to everything that we’re doing.”
When the dust settled on the nonconference season the Buckeyes stood at 8-5 overall with the aforementioned bad losses on the resume as well as a big win over Kentucky as part of a four-game winning streak entering conference play.
With just one scholarship junior, four sophomores and no seniors, Ohio State had plenty of question marks entering the season and few of them have been answered with a lot of inconsistent play.
“I definitely think that we have improved from the first game of the season until now, we’re figuring out our identity," Jae'Sean Tate said. "We see hints of that. I feel like after that Kentucky game we just got a lot more confidence in who we are and we just got to continue p[laying with that mindset and go out there with that effort. I think that’s just the team we are, the one that plays hard and locks in on every key thing.”
In their four toughest nonconference games – Virginia, Memphis, UConn and Kentucky – the Buckeyes emerged 1-4, and that about matched preseason expectations, even if the one win wasn’t the one that might have been expected. The two bad losses were a bit of a curveball, however, but might have just been some bad growing pains.
“I think we’re finally hitting our stride,” Keita Bates-Diop said after scoring a career-high 24 points in Ohio State’s final nonconference game Sunday. “Going into Big Ten that’s going to be huge for us.
“It’s a whole new mentality, it’s a whole new season. Different feel, everything is heightened now. It’s more serious really. It’s a more serious season.”
Bates-Diop is one of the few players on Ohio State’s roster with experience playing in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes second leading scorer this year (13.0 points per game) averaged just 7.4 minutes per game in conference play last season.
Jae’Sean Tate and Marc Loving started 12 and six games in the Big Ten last year, respectively, while four of the Buckeyes seven leaders in minutes per game this season have never played in the conference.
“This team is an everyday team,” Matta said. “We’ve got to just continue to grind and hammer. We’ve got to get to where we’ve got more constants about us in terms of we know what we are going to get this every time we take the floor and it’s funny because they know how we have to be feeling and how we have to be feeling every time we take the floor, but we’ve got to get there.”
The Buckeyes will be trying to get there on the fly over 18 Big Ten games starting with Minnesota tomorrow night. Here’s a quick look at what they’re facing.
Big Ten Premier
The Top Tier
The Big Ten appears to be a three-team race entering conference play as Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue have appeared to be a notch above the rest.
The Spartans (13-0) survived the nonconference unscathed and have topped Kansas, Louisville and Florida along the way. Tom Izzo’s bunch is led by Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine who is averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists so far this season, a triple-double threat every time he takes the floor.
The top-ranked Spartans have looked more vulnerable with Valentine out with a knee injury, though Valentine is only expected to miss about three games in conference play after having arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 21.
The Terrapins (11-1) and Boilermakers (12-1) haven’t been quite as impressive as Michigan State, but both deserve recognition ahead of the rest of the league.
Maryland has a win over UConn under its belt with the team’s only loss coming to North Carolina. Point guard Melo Trimble runs the show for Maryland and the sophomore is averaging 14.8 points, 5.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game while hitting 41.3 percent from three.
Purdue, meanwhile, is powered by its paint presence. The Boilermakers have three post players averaging more than 10 points per game with A.J. Hammons leading the way with 13.3 and 8.2 rebounds while Isaac Haas is posting 12.2 point per game and 5.4 rebounds. Freshman Caleb Swanigan has lived up to his five-star status with 11.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
Purdue has wins over Florida and Pittsburgh so far this season with its only loss coming to Butler.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes they play Michigan State and Maryland twice and though they only play Purdue once, they get the Boilermakers on the road.
After the top three, the rest of the Big Ten could be arranged in nearly any order, and the Buckeyes are clearly hoping they can fall towards the top of that second tier.
Indiana (10-3), Michigan (10-3) and Iowa (9-3) have all had decent nonconference performances, while Northwestern is a bit of a surprise at 12-1 with the one defeat coming to North Carolina.
It will be a long while before we know how these teams shake out or whether the perceived top three teams are worthy of that perception.
Matta is still learning a lot about his young team, and he knew that would be the case at this point in the season. For now he’s just looking forward to the Big Ten season.
“Without a doubt I think that, the thing that excites is me is guys can play some really high-level basketball,” he said. “Finding that consistency is going to be what the next 10 weeks is about.”