I've recently been asked several times what I believe the keys to the season are for the Ohio State men's basketball team. In all honesty, I believe there are three keys that stand out above all else.
But, in the spirit of the season, I'm borrowing Steve Helwagen's "Ten Pressing Questions" column and giving you the preseason basketball version of "Ten Pressing Questions" for what Ohio State must do to be successful in 2004-2005.
So without further adieu, if the esteemed editor doesn't mind, here we go. Since Ohio State just opened its season up with the exhibition game against Northern Kentucky, now is the perfect time for the "Ten Pressing Questions".
For as horrible as last season wound up being for both Ivan Harris and Ricardo Billings, it is prudent to give each player a pass on their individual performances.
Harris, a McDonalds All-American, the first one Ohio State has had since Derek Anderson, was learning to become a more physical and aggressive player. Harris' ability was rarely questioned, especially considering he showed ample scoring punch in practice.
For Harris, the coaching staff had a very tumultuous time getting Harris to play like a power forward—a position they desired greatly.
There is no question that Harris can shoot it, and there's even less a question that with Thad Matta in town, his style will come in handy.
With Billings, it was a different story. Confidence seemed to be the biggest problem for this former Detroit prep star.
Signing with the Buckeyes in 2002, Billings was a Prop 48 Casualty, meaning he had to sit out the entire 2002-2003 season due to academics.
Because of his being a Prop 48 Casualty, he was disallowed by NCAA legislature from not only competing in any games his freshman season, but being to practice with the team as well.
For that reason, last year was his first season playing at the Division I level. Billings showed much promise early in the season but after the team began its free-for-all by midseason, Billings was one of the many victims finding himself on the bench next to Coach O'Brien.
When Billings did find himself back on the floor, he was rather gun-shy. This summer, however, Billings' confidence seemed to be at an amazing high. He was often the go-to guy during Worthington Summer League play, despite being teammates with former Buckeyes Scoonie Penn, Brent Darby, and Ken Johnson.
Coaches often say that the biggest improvement in a career should come from freshmen to sophomore seasons. So with that being said, Billings and Harris must produce this season.
Early returns have catered mixed results. Reports say Ivan Harris has in fact been very productive in early practices. Meanwhile, Billings has not carried over the confidence and production from the summer.
Can these two players become double-digit scorers?
9. Can the Buckeyes Become Better Free Throw Shooters?
Last season's numbers weren't pretty. The Buckeyes finished dead last in the Big Ten shooting -- just 64.9 percent from the charity stripe.
The amazing thing is, Ohio State actually attempted more free throws (667) on the season than all but two other teams in the entire conference. Ohio State made 433 of those 667 free throws, which means even making 70 percent for the season would have been an additional 33 points.
Sure, 33 points over the course of a 30-game season doesn't seem like much, but how would anyone like to add an extra six, or even seven points to one of those close losses?
Stockman, who actually didn't make the necessary two free throws per game average to qualify, would have been 8th in the conference.
The next closest player, Terrance Dials, would have finished at 22nd in the conference in free throw shooting, as he connected just 71.7 %.
After that, the percentages get downright ugly.
The future appears a little bit brighter, however.
Jamar Butler comes in this season from a high school career that saw him hit nearly 86 percent of his free throws. Je'Kel Foster hit 84 percent of his free throws last year en route to becoming a Junior College All-American at Chipola Junior College.
As for the returning players, only time will tell. However, if you want to look even further ahead to next season, the Buckeyes bring in Sylvester Mayes and Ronald Lewis, both of whom are 85 percent-plus free throw shooters.
It is imperative, however, that the Buckeyes get to about middle-of-the-pack in free throw shooting this season. They will most certainly get quite a few attempts, especially with Terrance Dials in the middle. Can they do it?
8. Can Ohio State Find a Few Outside Shooting Threats?
Last season, Nick Dials and Stockman were the only two players capable of making an outside shot with any regularity. Given that Dials has since transferred and Stockman made just 36.1% of his outside shots, it's fair to say Ohio State has no proven consistent 3-point marksmen.
This season, outside shooting is very much an important factor in how Ohio State fares. For starters, Thad Matta's entire philosophy is predicated upon the outside shot and hitting open looks.
Given Ohio State has very few players capable of driving the lane consistently, the Buckeyes will need to be scoring from the outside in addition to whatever contributions that Terrance Dials makes in the paint.
Surprisingly, Ohio State, despite not having a consistent outside shooter, did manage to make 34 percent of their 3-point shots last season, which was good for fourth in the conference.
Matta is relying heavily this season on Stockman, who reportedly has been an extremely good shooter through the first three weeks of practice.
Last season, Stockman's 36 percent (which isn't bad by any means), was slightly lower than it probably should have been because of shot-selection more than anything.
This year in the early going, Stockman's shot selection has been worlds better. If he continues that trend, it will also carry over and translate into a much higher shooting percentage if there's any truth to the fact his shooting itself has improved as well.
Foster, the 6-2 junior guard, has also been very impressive thus far in practice and should be able to hit some shots.
Matta has singled out Foster on many occasions, and Foster appears to be the current choice for first man off the bench in his player rotations. Foster hit 42 percent of his 3-points last year as a college sophomore at Chipola.
Three wildcards in this equation will be Ivan Harris, Jamar Butler, and Ricardo Billings.
Harris did actually make 43.8 percent of his outside shots last season, although in fewer attempts (16) than most players. Should he be able to hit shots at that clip this season, however, Harris will be a viable threat.
Butler has the ability to extend a zone because of terrific shooting range. Butler will probably pass up too many open looks in the early going as he may suffer your typical passiveness that many freshmen go through, but once he's comfortable to pull the trigger, Butler is capable of hitting 40 percent of his shots.
Lastly, although Billings' biggest strength might be his quickness off the dribble, he showed a much stronger outside shot this summer. The question remains, will he carry that over into this season?
7. Will Ohio State Show a Lot More Effort and Intensity This Season Under Thad Matta?
There's no magical statistic of any kind that can measure this element. But anyone who saw the games for a good 75 percent of the season realizes that there was a major mental toughness lacking from this team.
Typically, players' mental make-ups aren't drastically altered so far into an amateur career. However, quite often in the first three weeks of practice, the words "spirited" and "intense" have described the efforts of the team collectively.
One would have to assume, for now, that selection of adjectives could only be a good thing.
Quite simply, the players must continue to give effort on each and every possession, through each and every screen and ball reversal, and going after each and every loose ball.
If Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger, two oft-mentioned criminals by way of lacking desire last season, continue the hard work and dedication they have shown in the off-season throughout the upcoming campaign, this team can be a lot better.
Before anything else, Ohio State needs to retain its mental focus on defense. Last year, it seemed players were taking half the game off, almost as if defense didn't matter to them.
That in itself was causing a lot of the problems we saw with Ohio State's perimeter defense. This season, the excitement of a new coach and renewed team effort should mean that half the battle has been fought, although it's obviously still a question mark or it wouldn't even be a bullet point of concern.
Je'Kel Foster has reportedly given the team a huge lift as expected when he signed with Ohio State, in terms of attitude and enthusiasm levels. Jamar Butler is not a vocal leader, but he will always give 110 percent on every play.
There's little doubt that this team will exhaust a lot more effort this season than last, but how much more and will it be satisfactory?
6. Can Ohio State Win the Early Games They Are Expected to Win?
Momentum. You hear the word used often in sports and athletics. There's no question that momentum—usually the result of confidence and execution, can go a long ways into final results.
Last year, perhaps the team was not nearly as bad as it played. But one thing is for sure, they got on the wrong side of the momentum, and things spiraled out of control rather quickly.
This year, the team starts off with excitement but they aren't suffering from swollen heads that perhaps engulfed them just a year ago. Still, you can't help but think their egos have to be a little bruised.
After all, this is a team that finished 14-16 and lost by double-digits to the University of San Francisco!
Because of the momentum factor, and the precious mental fragility of this team, it's nearly imperative the Buckeyes start the season off winning all the games they are favored in. That means Ohio State absolutely cannot lose to Delaware or Robert Morris.
Should Ohio State be able to take just two or maybe even three losses into the start of Big Ten play, there's just no telling what sort of a run Ohio State could make in a rather average conference this season.
Just for the sake of dreaming, if Ohio State carries enough momentum into the NCAA Tournament, you know the old adage: "on any given day".
Back in the 1998-1999 season, there were probably zero individuals in Columbus that thought that particular squad was capable of getting to the NCAA Tournament, much less the Final Four after losing to Toledo on a last-second shot.
But, that team got hot, they started building confidence, and after an upset or two along the way, the next thing you knew Jim O'Brien was doing the dirty bird in front of a national audience down in Knoxville.
Can this team regain a healthy amount of confidence?
5. Can Ohio State Keep Terrance Dials On the Floor This Season?
Simply put—The Buckeyes need Terrance Dials. That means he cannot get hurt. That means he cannot get in foul trouble. Whatever it takes, they need him to play 35 minutes of every game if possible.
Last season, Dials averaged 10.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. This year, with the graduation of Velimir Radinovic, Dials will be a one-man wrecking crew down low.
When Dials is playing like a man possessed, there's arguably no center in the Big Ten as good as he is. Only Courtney Sims of Michigan compares favorably in overall playing ability.
There's a good possibility that Dials will average 15 points and eight rebounds a game this year—on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. But for that to happen, he's got to stay on the floor.
If he is lost to injury or foul problems, the pickings are slim.
Matt Marinchick is in better shape, and he's gotten a bit stronger but he's still a liability defensively against a strong center, and he isn't able to finish his shots down in the post with any consistency. In short, he's just not quite the answer.
Unlike Marinchick, Matt Terwilliger is most definitely talented enough to fill that role in the Big Ten, but for now he's just too fragile and inconsistent to be counted on. By late in the season, it's possible he will have stepped up his game and the Buckeyes can spell Dials more often, but right now it's not safe to count on that likelihood.
The Buckeyes need him, but will he be there—enough?
4. Will the Buckeyes Be in Better Shape Physically?
If you listened closely in between the squeaking of sneakers and the ruffling of the newspaper of the gentleman sitting in the row behind you, reading his newspaper, the distant sound coming from the floor of the near morbid-like Value City arena was the sound of J.J. Sullinger gasping for air.
Or, perhaps it was more of a symphony. The chorus of breathes—a perfect harmony from the Ohio State basketball chorale. No, they aren't chamber singers. They were just a basketball team out of shape in unison.
The other overriding factor contributing much of the Buckeyes' woes last season was the very poor physical condition these players were in.
Although Sullinger's breathing may have been the most pronounced, he wasn't the lone gunman out there. Very few players were in anywhere near peak physical shape.
Recognizing the problem, Jim O'Brien said at season's end that he vowed his team would be the best conditioned this upcoming season in the entire conference.
O'Brien is no longer around to live out that prophecy, but Matta has certainly done nothing but run with that philosophy—pun intended.
Waking daily at 5:00 A.M., the players were expected to run five miles a day. Immediately following their early-morning jogs, were intense workouts and drills in the gymnasium.
The results are very noticeable, at least by first observations from the open basketball practice of two weeks ago.
Sullinger and Marinchick were trimmed, Tony Stockman was toned, Ivan Harris was quick, and Terrance Dials was moving up and down the floor.
Collectively, it was obvious the team is in much better shape this season. It still remains to be seen, however, how that will translate into game conditions.
How will Ohio State fare in comparison to their opponents in a tight game late in the Big Ten season?
I believe the previous seven keys are all very important to Ohio State's success this season, but these last three pressing questions, in my opinion, are the sure-tell signs of whether or not Ohio State can bounce back with a good season.
3. Will Ohio State Have Anyone Step Up As a Consistent Scorer?
I've always felt for teams in college basketball to excel, it must have two proven scorers and a third who can step up on any given night and drop 20.
Ohio State has several candidates for either of those two roles, but they are still accepting applications because thus far, no positions have been filled.
Tony Stockman and Terrance Dials are the two early favorites to become consistent scorers. However, neither have shown the likelihood of doing it—just yet.
In actuality, perhaps Dials is already there. Dials not only dominated the open practice to the public, but reportedly he also was a man amongst boys in a closed scrimmage against Bowling Green.
Okay, so that leaves Ohio State in need of at least one more consistent scoring threat. If indeed Stockman's shooting has improved a lot in the off-season that leaves him as a viable candidate to become a scoring leader.
However, that begs the next question—is Stockman's decision-making good enough to be a true leader? Thus far, the answer to that question from the staff's feedback is an overwhelming "yes".
But again, we will have to see if that carries over into the season.
To be on the safe side, Ohio State needs either Harris or Billings, and one of Foster, Butler, or Sullinger to become that third scoring option.
2. Can Ohio State Improve Its' Perimeter Defense From a Season Ago?
The defense last season out on the perimeter by Ohio State was nothing short of atrocious. But, since I'm in a giving mood, all I'm suggesting for this season is that it gets better.
Ohio State does not necessarily need to shut its opponents down to 50 points a game, especially if they improve in various facets of the game. However, it simply cannot be as bad as it was in 2003-2004.
Last year, Ohio State was dead last in 3-point field goal percentage allowed. If you are standing up, please sit down for this next statistic. If you are already sitting down, please stand up and remove any sharp objects from your eyesight. If you have a history of heart problems, you might want to just skip this portion entirely.
Ohio State allowed their opponents (allowed, gave, whatever term you think is best-used) 40.4 percent from beyond the arc. Minnesota, the next closest team in giving up the deep-ball, allowed their opponents to shoot 35.6 percent.
How many shots difference were there between the two? Try this on for size: Ohio State allowed 218 made 3-pointers, while Minnesota gave up 186. For any math deficiencies you may have, that's 32 more 3-pointers given up, which is an extra 96 points (nearly three more points a game from the 3-pointer alone).
As mentioned earlier, Je'Kel Foster should help a little bit defensively. He's considered to be a solid defender. Jamar Butler is also a tenacious defender and should be to hold his own against most guards.
The problem could still come, however, with the starting rotation. Although Stockman and Sullinger are both in better shape and presumably giving a ton more effort, if they are in the same starting lineup with Fuss-Cheatham, it could still spell a little bit of a disaster if the offense isn't clicking.
The bottom line is that neither Stockman nor Sullinger are very good defensively. They are sub-par at working around screens. Their footwork is average at best, and they don't often focus their energy enough on the defensive end.
One thing that Stockman does have going for him is the fact he has pretty quick hands, and (when he's using them) relatively good instincts. Stockman finished third in the entire conference in steals just a year ago, which might just serve as more evidence he needs to bear down and not just wait to pick off passes, but actually get in his man's face.
Ohio State does not need to become suddenly a strong defending team, nor do they need to. If you are expecting them to, you are going to be severely disappointed. However, should they improve in other areas, they don't need to be.
If Ohio State can just get even an average performance on the defensive end (for this example, we will ask for giving up no more than 34 percent shooting from the 3-point line), they could meet or exceed many goals and aspirations.
1. Can Ohio State Get Production From Their Point Guard?
I've said it many times, and it is worth repeating—Ohio State will be as good as its point guard this season.
For some, that might be depressing. However, it's not necessarily all that bad.
Consider that last season, Ohio State had absolutely no leader, no point guard, no defense, no free throw shooting, no effort, no intensity, no coach (for the first month or two), no consistent scoring, and no consistent lineup, and yet they finished just two games below .500, and a 4-game swing would have had them dancing.
How's that for perspective?
This season, they don't need a Dee Brown (and it's a good thing, because they simply don't have one on the roster). However, whoever is playing point guard needs to be solid and cannot make mistakes.
Last year, Ohio State was third to last in turnover margin as they were giving the ball up one and a half times more than their opponents. Further, they were second to last in assist-to-turnover ratio, as they had a meager 0.80 ratio.
Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, for now, is the point guard. He's a senior and although it's not desirable for Ohio State fans, they do know what they will get out of him.
The upside comes if you add in Stockman and/or Jamar Butler into the equation. Some are anxious to see how Stockman responds this season. The coaching staff seems to feel in the early going that Stockman can slide over to the point and do an adequate job at keeping the offense flowing.
The Tony Stockman of last season would not have done that. But again, will this be the same Stockman?
There's little question that Butler will ultimately fill that position by season's end. For now, however, it's impossible to predict that he's grown comfortable enough to step into that position.
No matter who the point guard is, it will be the single biggest factor in Ohio State's success. Should Butler mature early or Fuss-Cheatham end up with an unexpected senior season, Ohio State could surprise folks and make an NCAA appearance. Should everything remain status quo and the point guard position continue to be an issue, the NIT is about the best Ohio State would do.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is Ohio State doesn't have to be drastically better in any one thing. They just need to improve a little bit at a time each day in every little facet of the game. If they do that, things will be much better.
I spoke of the four-game swing earlier, and how that would likely have gotten Ohio State an NCAA bid. Let's use that four-game swing, which would have put Ohio State at 18-12.
Okay, sure, even at 18 wins there's no guarantee of an NCAA at-large bid, especially if your RPI is anywhere below 35. However, let's use the 18-win threshold for this example.
Can everyone agree that given how bad Ohio State was last season, to only need four more wins than last year is a relatively simple task? Well, it's fair to assume that Ohio State will be much more competitive than they were just one year ago, but whether that translates into the victories or not is anyone's guess.
This is by no means exact science, but for illustration purposes, I have looked at last year's statistics just to get an idea of how Ohio State could improve in key areas and get those four victories.
(Note: As I mentioned, this is not a science and does not take into account the emotional part of the game, nor does it reflect other factors such as where the games are played, injuries, momentum, etc. This is simply a statistical example of how theoretically easy it is to pick up an extra four or five wins along the way)
Last Season, Ohio State averaged 63.4 points a game and gave up 69.3 a game.
Last Season, Ohio State shot just 64.9 percent from the free throw line.
Last Season, Ohio State shot 34.1 percent from the 3-point line and gave up 40.4 percent.
Last Season, Ohio State committed 14.6 turnovers a game.
I mentioned Ohio State shooting 70 percent from the charity stripe as a satisfactory number. Ohio State would need to convert 466 free throws this season (assuming the attempts stayed the same) to reach that number. An extra 33 made free throws would comfortably give the Buckeyes another point per game.
The Buckeyes would probably be satisfied with 35 percent from 3-point range. To do that, Ohio State would need to make 153 3-pointers this season, instead of the 147 they made last year. (Again, this is assuming the number of attempts were to remain the same). For the season, that would be about another half a point per game.
Ohio State should seek to cut their turnover total to around 13 a game. Should they cut that number to 13, you could reasonably conclude that's worth an extra basket per game.
Lastly, and this is the most important one, Ohio State needs to cut down the 3-point percentage to about 33.5 percent—a standard middle-of-the-road defense. If the opponents' attempts were the same as last year (539 3-pointers taken against the Buckeyes), giving up 33.5 percent would translate into about 186 3-pointers made by the opposition. That is, of course, 32 less and about three points a game less by the opposition.
All things combined in those critical categories alone, that adds up to about a 6.5-point swing.
Just those small deviations alone could have influenced the final results in home games against Texas Tech, Indiana, Iowa, and the season finale against Illinois (all of which were less than nine point deficits). And that's simply by using the very bleak results of a team that was not very competitive last season.
There's absolutely no telling how this season will play out. But for Ohio State to be successful this season, they need to answer as many of the questions I've laid out as possible. I'm asking for a 4-game swing.
For now, postseason play of any sort should be what Ohio State fans hope for along with brand new exciting, competitive basketball back at the Schottenstein Center. However, should a few numbers go as I've suggested, and a few of these pressing questions be answered positively, maybe the Buckeyes will find themselves a date for the March ball by the name of momentum. Everyone wants to be dancing with momentum on its side.