The numbers say that Ohio State is better than it was entering Big Ten play last season. So, too, does its record. Now it's time for a year's worth of experience to lead the Buckeyes to a better season and a return to the NCAA Tournament.
The numbers say that Ohio State is better than it was entering Big Ten play last season. So, too, does its record.
Now it's time for a year's worth of experience to lead the Buckeyes to a better season and a return to the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State opens Big Ten play tonight at Illinois with a roster that, as junior Keita Bates-Diop put it, is largely no longer naïve to the challenge the next 18 games will present.
"I feel really good about where we are," he said. "The Big Ten's wide open. I feel like we've really got a chance to win it."
Last season, the Buckeyes had a combined 18 career Big Ten starts when they opened conference play. This season, that number has jumped to 97 starts after going 11-7 in league play and then returning the top six scorers from that team.
It has led to a 10-3 record in nonconference play, an improvement on last season's 8-5 record that included a four-game losing streak. Although the improved record is sullied by a home loss to Florida Atlantic and lackluster wins against Fairleigh Dickinson and UNC Asheville, the Buckeyes are statistically improved compared with nonconference play last season.
In 16 key team categories, Ohio State is better in 12 of them, including scoring offense (up from 71.5 points to 75.0), field goal percentage (up from .454 to .486) and rebounding margin (up from plus-4.4 to plus-6.2). It is allowing one-tenth of a point more per game and has dipped most noticeably from beyond the three-point arc, where the Buckeyes are making only 32.5 percent of their attempts.
Coach Thad Matta continues to say he likes the shots his players are getting and that they will eventually fall. It's the biggest area of concern for a team pegged as potential conference sleeper.
"I still want the focus on taking out the bad stretches that we have in certain games," he said. "I think that our defense is better, our offensive execution is a lot better and we've still got to be able to keep the push of our transition. Looking at film over the break, when we're out and moving it seems to be our best offense."
Ohio State's seven Big Ten losses last season came by an average of 17.3 points. Just one of them was by single digits; two of them were among the six worst losses Matta has had at Ohio State.
"We know what we need to do," Bates-Diop said. "We went 11-7 last year and we know how we won, how we lost, what we have to do and what we have to not do. Just hopefully we can do those things for 18 games."
It starts tonight with the Fighting Illini, a team the Buckeyes beat twice last season and haven't lost to since Jan. 5, 2013 - a six-game winning streak. A win would tie the program record for longest winning streak against Illinois.
"We've played pretty well," Bates-Diop said. "Even though we've had some ups and downs, obviously some losses - that FAU loss took us back a little bit - but other than that I feel like we've played really good basketball to this point and we have a really good shot."