Ohio State: How Good Is Good?

Are they or aren't they? Will they or won't they? Can they be or are they already? So many questions floating about the Ohio State basketball team. Despite the No. 2 ranking and possible outright Big Ten Title and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, people want to know whether they're capable of cutting down the nets in Atlanta. Kyle Lamb breaks down what is and isn't true about Ohio State.

A wise man, almost assuredly one that never engaged in a debate, once said things are never as good as they seem nor are they as bad as they seem. He's likely akin to the philosopher that maintains there's three sides to every story - yours, mine and the truth.

Perhaps if more of these scholars and intellectuals were better versed in the game of basketball, they could explain what's wrong with the Ohio State basketball team. Weren't you aware there were problems? Maybe nothing is the matter. You say either, I say either, you say neither, and I say neither - Either, either, Neither, neither, let's call the whole thing off.

Ohio State is sitting with a lofty 23-3 record. Their only losses on the aged season were on the road to No. 1 Florida, No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 4 North Carolina.

The young Buckeyes have a No. 1 seed dead in their sights. They've got an even bigger stranglehold on a possible Big Ten Championship, as winning their last four games would clinch their second consecutive outright title.

So what is all this fuss about?

The statistics suggest there's little to be concerned about. Some logic argues that statistics can be twisted, manipulated and posed to tell whatever story needs to be told. The "optimists" watching Ohio State point to the record, talent and potential and say, "a win is a win."

That could very well be the truth.

On the other hand, the "pessemists" say second-half meltdowns against North Carolina, Tennessee, Northwestern, Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State suggest the team's inexperience, lack of discipline or killer instinct, or combination of the three, could spell an early NCAA Tournament exit or something that falls short of the Final Four or beyond.

That also might be accurate.

There is an easy explanation in this that the wisemen, George Gershwin and basketball fanatics might all agree on: the truth lies in the middle. We're at the 86.7 percent mark of the regular season, and it's time for that analytical breakdown seperating fact from fiction and tie the loose ends to that agreeable middle where we can all hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah.

I never was a great fan of English as a subject. So it's with great pleasure to my high school English teacher Miss Egan (not the other one I had, Mrs. Quintiff who once admitted to us she was a 1960's child that smoked grass and rallied behind the peace movement singing the tunes of Joe Cocker and Barry McGuire), that I declare this subject a product of irony: the difference between appearance and reality. (Note to readers: don't mistake this for socratic irony, which is claiming to be ignorant on a subject - which perhaps might not be a terrible idea).

Somewhere, Miss Egan is smiling. Ironically enough, I am sure she won't mind my telling that her brother Barry coached Matt Terwilliger early in his career at Troy. He is now coaching at Marion Harding High School.

So now that I've mentioned a player by name, perhaps that's a perfect segue to the root of the problem: veteran leadership.

Let's look at some of the plethora of arguments regarding Ohio State's success, or purported lack thereof.


It's not really a matter of experience for Ohio State, it's the senior (non) leadership that has been an issue. With just two seniors on the roster, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta counts heavily on his four upper classmen to produce.

That consists of Terwilliger, Ivan Harris, Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler.

Terwilliger has not played enough to shoulder any of the blame. After all, he is what he is: a solid frontcourt reserve who's role it is to spell Greg Oden for productive minutes and not make mistakes when he's playing.

Lewis is essentially a four-year starter. He was an All-Mid American Conference selection at Bowling Green and won the Freshman of the Year award his first season there. Lewis was high as a kite following his 30-point outburst in Chapel Hill back in November, but since then his shot has stopped finding the basket and he's pressed to make plays. He's often either trying to do too much or not doing enough. Call it the missing happy medium.

A former McDonald's All-American, Harris has never lived up to the expectations of a burger boy. For that matter, he's not living up to the expectations of a consistent veteran. "The microwave," hasn't re-heated his shot much at all in recent weeks. "He's never seen a shot he didn't like," remarked one color commentator in a recent telecast.

The fourth in the upper class quartet, Butler, has been much more solid and good than inconsistent and bad. Butler's shot has been far more dependable in recent weeks, but he still struggles with his previous reputation for being too passive. That's concerning for a talented scorer that was a second team All-Big Ten pick last season.

When the going gets tough for Ohio State, the tough get shooting. That seems to be the team's motto even if it's a law of unintended consequences.

Freshman point guard Mike Conley makes good decision with the basketball. Lewis often does not. Butler typically makes good decision with the basketball, Harris does not. Freshman David Lighty sometimes makes good decisions with the basketball, Daequan Cook doesn't always. It's wash, rinse and repeat but you can see the trending downward in critical situations.

So when Ohio State plays out-of-this-world in earning a comfortable lead, they sometimes lose focus. Lacking focus and intensity has to either fall on the shoulders of the coach or the team's leaders. In this case, I wouldn't call the problem inexperience as much as the experience lacking leadership (and consistent decision-making).

An important footnote: remember that Matta needs every one of those four to produce.

Not everything is all rosey in the other national championship-contending cities, either. Although Florida has bragging rights for being the defending National Champion, the Gators have had the exact opposite problem as Ohio State - starting slow.

Florida has started slow or fallen behind by double-digits in games this season against Kansas (11 points), Florida State (15), UAB (11), Georgia (8), Mississippi State (9), Vanderbilt (12), Georgia (6) and Alabama (15). Talk about having problems finishing, how's that for starting slow?

To Florida's credit, with the exception of Kansas and Florida State (a game that Corey Brewer missed with mononucleosis), the Gators rallied back strong in the second half for a victory. But how many times can a team continually play with fire and escape by overcoming a large deficit? Sooner or later, such a lead may be insurmountable, shots won't fall, the breaks won't go your way and you lose. So these problems aren't specific to Ohio State.

Offensive Juggernaut or Just Plain Offensive?

Against Penn State, a common first-half reaction would have been, "wow, great play." Or, "nice pass; great ball movement; good shot; terrific effort; they really showed up; this is the team I have wanted to see; they can beat anyone." End result: 40-19.

Some 45 minutes later, it became, "%&#!; (expletive) you (insert player); what the (censored) are you doing?; What was that? Nooo! Don't shoot that..."

End (and final) result: 64-62. Narrow escape.

Everyone has a theory: it's the execution. It's the decision-making. It's that they're not using Greg Oden enough. They rely on 3-pointers too much.

I'm certain I could scrape the bottom of the barrell and surmise it's a lot of those things. When Ohio State builds up a big lead, they lose their focus. There's too much standing around, which leads to less ball movement, which means fewer opportunities for entry passes to Oden in the post, which means a sagging defense against him, which ultimately means players settle for quicker shots or force something that isn't there. In a nutshell, that's a microcosm of your entire season when Ohio State struggles.

But back to those crazy statistics (I know, lies, damn lies and statistics right?). Some quick number crunching says maybe Ohio State is better off than you think.

First and foremost, Ohio State is not turning the ball over much recently. For the season, Ohio State is committing a turnover less than once in every five possessions. That ranks No. 42 nationally according to KenPom.com - and if you haven't bookmarked his site for statistical observations, do so immediately.

(End shameless plug).

Secondly, Ohio State is, for all intents and purposes, relying less and less on the outside shot as the season wears on. To date, 72 teams nationally are attempting more shots from 3-point range as a percentage of their total shots. For the season, it stands that Ohio State is shooting 38.7 percent of their shots from behind-the-arc.

Is Ohio State utilizing Oden enough? It's a subjective debate. Consider that when teams go to a 2-3 or especially 1-3-1 zone, it's often tough to get him touches. Sometimes, attacking a weakness in a zone will get you a look. Crisp and quick passing will also get the defense rotating enough to allow an entry pass.

Before Oden, or at least pre-Oden and before the Big Ten started, Ohio State had attempted 304 3-pointers out of 755 field goal attempts. That's a percentage of 40.2 percent. Since the beginning of Big Ten, that has gone down to 264 3-pointers of 701 3-point attempts - 37.7 percent of Ohio State's field goal attempts. Of course, that doesn't account for all the hidden touches he receives where he passes the ball back (sometimes because of the double and triple teams, others because of his comfort level with the brace on his wrist). It also doesn't account for nearly 100 free throw attempts in the last 13 games since the Big Ten debut against Indiana (half of their 26 games this season).

So if Ohio State is not turning the ball over much and they're taking less 3-pointers, what else is there? Obviously basketball is predicated upon putting the ball in the hoop. They're also No. 13 nationally in effective field goal percentage (which is field goal percentage with given appropriate weight to making threes). So if Ohio State is taking fewer 3-pointers, they're not turning the ball over and they're putting the ball in the hoop, they must be doing pretty well offensively right?

Right. In fact, in terms of points per 100 possessions, Ohio State ranks No. 8 nationally in scoring per 100 possesions. In the adjusted number, taking into account road games and competition, Ohio State is No. 4 in all of college basketball in offensive efficiency.

That leads me to the conclusion their occasional lapses are a combination of two things: defensive intensity and shot selection. Which lends even more credence people simply want 40 minutes of basketball.

A Reason To Be Defensive?

Reasonable disclaimer: if you're a stat geek, you're probably already able to regurgitate this information. If not, you're either going to be overwhelmed or you simply puke at the name Bill James or word "sabermetrics." SABR, for short, are some new-age metrics being used for baseball junkies to further evaluate the performance of their favorite boys of summer.

James, a popular baseball stat junkie, developed what's termed as the pythagorean theorem (we're talking baseball, not greek philosophy). Historically, his formula, which is simple yet complex and takes runs scored and runs given up as a measure to estimate a team's final record over a 162-game season, has been deadly accurate. Usually it can determine within two games how a team will finish.

By the same logic, Ken Pomeroy (again, plugging one of my favorite stat heads), uses his adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies to rate how a team will fair against "average" competition. The theorem, equates Ohio State as having a 98.3 percent rating in the college hoops version of the pythag - essentially meaning they would hypothetically go 98-2 against average competition. More importantly, they're tied for third with Texas A&M behind only North Carolina and Florida in this metric, combining the offensive and defensive efficiencies. The importance of this: of the last four years, only George Mason has made the Final Four and not finished in the top 10 of the pythagorean at the end of the season.

So what's essentially the difference? Even in defensive efficiency, Ohio State comes in at No. 19 overall. In adjusted defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions given up, taking into account home and road splits as well as competition), Ohio State is the No. 16-ranked defensive team in the nation.

There are a couple of conspicous stats that stand out, however, about Ohio State on the defensive end.

1. Ohio State is only forcing turnovers on 21 percent of their opponents possesions. That means teams are not losing a lot possessions because of turnovers which also means when Ohio State pressures with any sort of halfcourt or 2-1-2 full court trap, it hasn't been very effective and used more for creating an up-tempo style that perhaps their opponents aren't comfortabe with.

2. Ohio State's opponents' free throw rate (free throw attempts times 100 divided by field goal attempts), which is a measure of how often teams get to the line versus how many shots they take, is just 19 percent which is second-best in the country. This means the "Oden factor" very much exists, as teams are shying away from taking the ball toward the rim. A testament to this hunch is that 36.5 percent of teams' shots against Ohio State are 3-pointers, which is No. 241 in the country.

3. Two perceived glaring weaknesses for Ohio State on defense are corroborated statistically. Despite Oden's presence defensively, Ohio State is giving up 45.6 percent field goal on 2-pointers. This means that A) Terwilliger and Othello Hunter are not doing a good enough job inside when Oden is on the bench and B) that Ohio State's weakside rebounding is allowing a lot of easy stick-backs. That also is evidence that Ohio State is struggling with the high screen rub and are losing the mid-range battle off the ball.

Still, to be a National Champion in college basketball, at least if these stats are any indication over the past few years, you need to be top 20 in defensive efficiency.

Ohio State is No. 19 in raw defensive efficiency.

Last year, Florida finished No. 19 in defensive efficiency. They won the National Title.

The year before, North Carolina finished No. 19 in defensive efficiency. They also won the National Title.

Will the third time be a charm? Maybe 19 is lucky for Ohio State.

Another wise man once said, "it's better to be lucky than good." I never liked those intellectual types anyhow.

Did I mention the part I'm willing to play both sides of the argument?

Buckeye Sports Top Stories