It's nearly the end of the college basketball semester. Students, in this case college basketball players, are hard-at-work preparing for final exams.
As the late-night cram sessions begin, it's time for a pre-assessment of Ohio State's season before they conclude the final three regular season games, followed by the Big Ten men's basketball tournament.
The Buckeyes, just 5-7 in their last 12 games (the new measure in which the NCAA selection committee gauges "recent" success), have been part of a large pool of contenders vying for at-large bids. Ohio State, like many others, has been throwing their chance at a bid around in a giant circle like a game of hot potato.
Or in school terms, they've been passing around notes.
"Do you want this bid? Check yes or no."
It's time for teacher to confiscate these distractions and concentrate on the task at hand: winning.
Saturday, the Buckeyes (17-11, 8-7 Big Ten) visit Williams Arena, AKA, "The Barn" for an important game toward Big Ten Tournament seeding. Minnesota trails Ohio State by just one game for the 5-seed, which would give one of the two teams a first-round bye in Indianapolis. Of course, Ohio State must also stop a three-game losing streak in hopes of avoiding flunking their final.
The only reason Ohio State has been left with a pulse is because the selection committee grades on a curve. The bubble teams have been purely mediocre this season, which is the reason they were on the bubble to begin with.
Mississippi started 13-0 this season, and is now 18-9 (4-9 SEC). Dayton was 14-1, but with the loss of freshman Chris Wright, finds itself in an uncomfortable 17-9 position (5-8 Atlantic 10). After a three-game winning streak, it seemed Oklahoma was starting to run away with an at-large bid, but has since lost road games to Texas and Wednesday night, Nebraska.
Recent slides have also been felt by Maryland, Oregon, Arizona State, Rhode Island, Syracuse and Florida among many others. In some cases, these teams have probably already played themselves out of at-large contention, whereas others are simply hanging on by a thread.
One of the few teams that have actually successfully played their way in to a bid is Kentucky. After starting the season 7-9 (1-2 SEC), the Wildcats amazingly have gone 9-1 in the SEC to suddenly propel them into the field of 65 (at least as of now).
But these teams all have something in common: there are a few big tests remaining. Acing them could still result in a trip to the big dance – the prom, so to speak.
If the professor had to hand down a grade for the Buckeyes today, as we head into March, it would probably be an unflattering ‘D.' Quite simply, Ohio State has had poor attendance in class, shown some tardiness in figuring out that day's offensive concepts and not worked well with others.
And sometimes, I wonder if the pupils are paying attention in class, or if the teacher is trying to teach history in a science class.
The season's progress report, unfortunately, has to start at the top.
First and foremost, to explain the troubles Ohio State has had on offense this season, one has to understand what the Buckeyes are trying to do.
The thesis for Ohio State's offense is a 4-out, 1-in offensive set predicated on spacing, ball-screens and having both shooters and penetrators to run the offense. That's a large problem right there, but more on that in a moment.
As part of this pro-style offense, which does generally attract recruits, you see a lot of dribble-weaves at the top of the key and a lot of two-man basketball (i.e. pick-and-roll, high-low, give-and-go, etc.)
What's interesting about Ohio State is that it's very much a slow-down style. This year, the Buckeyes rank No. 272 in tempo, according to KenPom.com, a statistics website that measures tempo-free statistics. Tempo is basically how many possessions a team averages per 40 minutes, estimating by use of shots taken, rebounds, turnovers, etc., since official box scores do not tally possessions.
Last year, when Ohio State was cruising to a National Championship game with three NBA first-round picks and athletes like Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and Ron Lewis, the Buckeyes were just No. 232 in the nation in tempo. Matta's first two seasons as coach were 207 and 209 respectively. In other words, Ohio State is a half-court offense.
Going back to the offense, it relies on having ball-handlers and shooters, as well as guys willing and able to drive (and dish). I believe this season as a whole, Matta has been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
The Buckeyes are No. 180 in the country in taking care of the basketball (turnover percentage). The Buckeyes are throwing the ball away one in every five possessions. When you're not getting a ton of possessions to begin with, and you're No. 234 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage, it's risky to play an offensive style not suited to your personnel.
Think back to Jamar Butler's sophomore season as the full-time point guard for Ohio State. Butler was an excellent shooter and great defender, but he was known for his inability to handle the basketball. Last season, it was assumed he had greatly improved his handle, but that was disguised a bit more because of Conley's presence.
As we have seen the return of Butler to the lead role this season, teams have often pressured him as soon as receiving an in-bounds pass. Even when he escapes to the timeline unscathed, teams are extending their defense to 30-feet, making him uncomfortable and forcing Ohio State to screen so far from the basket. The hedge has often led to turnovers, especially late in the season, and when Butler has turned the corner, he's passed on the chance to penetrate.
Many of Butler's turnovers can be attributed to fatigue, which has certainly worn him down late in the season. But with Evan Turner, David Lighty and Jon Diebler all turnover-prone as well, one wonders why the Buckeyes haven't instituted a little more motion in their offense for this season to cut down on the amount of dribbling necessary.
Matta was left in an unfortunate position. His fearless point guard, Conley, unexpectedly declared for the NBA draft after just one season. Even despite that, there was all summer to prepare for life after Conley.
Speaking of summer, Butler's decision to head back home this past summer has clearly been an issue. From day one, Butler and his younger teammates have shown very little in the way of chemistry playing with one another. Kudos to Butler for trimming down and getting quicker while he was away, but I can't help but think his personal improvements came at the expense of this year's team.
Conceptually, there's little or nothing wrong with Matta's offense. I believe it's good for recruiting, as it attracts players that want to prepare for a possible NBA career, but as long as it's being run by the right athletes and guys that can pass, dribble and shoot, it should work. It just needs a little fine-tuning and a tad more discipline in crunch time.
The last two years, people will be surprised to learn that while it seemed like the Buckeyes struggled offensively in stretches, they still ranked Nos. 10 and 24 in offensive efficiency, which is a stat that measures points per 100 possessions. That's telling, because it takes the tempo out of the equation, and stacks teams up simply on how many points they would score given 100 equal possessions.
But this year's team was obviously not as well equipped.
Offensively, Ohio State has committed too many turnovers (No. 180), shot poorly from 3-point range (No. 234) and had a very low free throw rate (No. 331).
And on defense, despite having one of the best-rated defenses in the nation (supported by the No. 34-ranked in defensive efficiency), as well as giving up a low field goal percentage, there are telling stats that explain why the Buckeyes have had lapses. Ohio State is No. 257 nationally in forcing turnovers – a figure that has actually been a constant since Matta arrived.
Teams are shooting 42 percent of their shots against Ohio State from behind the arc. Sixty-five percent of their made field goals come with assists – which usually means poor defensive rotation. That's second-to-last in the entire country. But it does get worse.
Perhaps the most disturbing stat of all is the allowing offensive rebounds. Ohio State ranks No. 230 in the nation at giving up offensive rebounds. Opponents are getting offensive boards on 34 percent of their missed shots – over a third.
In essence, the issues plaguing Ohio State this season have been turnovers, lack of forcing turnovers, giving up offensive rebounds, giving up a high number of 3-pointers and making a very low number offensively. But yet Ohio State continues to run an offense conducive to these turnovers and taking too many long 3-pointers.
Next season should be fine, as a whole. Diebler should be a year better as a shooter and scorer. Turner could be an All-Big Ten selection. Kosta Koufos, if he returns, and B.J. Mullens will give Ohio State a talented front-line that should receive more of a boost from the backcourt with McDonald's All-American William Buford arriving on the scene.
But this year's school is still in session, and it hasn't been pleasant.
Hopefully for Ohio State, they Ace the final.