Deep, Ever-Improving Ohio State Hasn’t Yet Seen Its Ceiling Even After Winning Six of Past Seven Games

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 31, 2021 at 6:39 pm
Zed Key
Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Playing the what-if game doesn’t really help anyone. The past won’t get changed regardless of how many scenarios get considered.

But allow yourself to imagine a 16-2 Ohio State men’s basketball team. While it’s not the reality in which we all live, it’s darn close. The Buckeyes only lost by two points to Purdue 12 days ago and one point to Northwestern a little over a month ago, and they led both contests with under two minutes remaining. 

Still, after the Buckeyes beat Michigan State on Sunday with ease reminiscent of what it has looked like for CJ Walker to walk up to the free-throw line and knock down 44 in a row, they do so knowing they sit at 14-4 on the season. They’re tied with Illinois for second in the Big Ten, will likely get bumped up from No. 13 into the Associated Press’ top-10 on Monday and have suddenly turned themselves into an upper-echelon Big Ten team.

Perhaps most notably, even after rolling the Spartans to win their sixth of the past seven games, nobody can be quite sure of this team’s ceiling yet.

A team’s record typically – for good reason – frames the discussion about them and dictates some of the chatter surrounding them. Up to this point, Ohio State hasn’t been a popular team by analysts or fans of other teams to throw around as a potential Final Four contender despite beating Illinois, Wisconsin, UCLA, Penn State and Rutgers (twice) and run off the court just once this season (at Minnesota). Yet, what if the Buckeyes had finished the games against the Boilermakers and Wildcats in which they led late? At 16-2, they would almost surely be talked about as both a Big Ten and national contender, likely finding a place among the top-five or top-seven teams in the Associated Press top-25 poll. And maybe that’s where they should be.

History shouldn’t ever get rewritten. But for a team that’s in a constant state of development like this one, those kinds of losses can happen, and as long as they get learned from, they might not accurately represent a group as time passes.

One thing’s for certain: Ohio State has gotten better, continues to get better and because of that sustained growth, this team still has a ceiling nobody has seen yet.

“We're very much a work in progress. That's still the case for us,” Chris Holtmann said after topping Michigan State at home. “But there's no doubt that this group has been a phenomenal group to coach. It really has. In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a lot of question marks about our team, it's been a phenomenal group to coach. The challenge for us is getting better. You can still lose games and be getting better. You can still lose games and be getting better. I think the challenge for us overall is us getting better here in this closing month-and-a-half stretch and improving in some of those areas. 

“Our group's competitive spirit really from Day 1 has been tremendous. Their connectedness has been really good. Hopefully we can finish that way here the last couple months.”

The action inside the Schottenstein Center on Sunday was just the latest example of why the nation should be paying attention to Ohio State as the postseason nears.

Ohio State didn’t trail the Spartans – who’d won the prior four meetings between them – after the fourth minute of the game, thoroughly controlling the 40-minute showdown in Columbus. While it wasn’t a full-fledged blowout, it sure seemed as though the home team didn’t feel a ton of danger even when Michigan State chopped the deficit to nine points with 4:20 remaining.

Walker's free throws and jumper from the elbow, along with zero points allowed in the final three minutes, prevented the game from getting dicey near the end. 

“I thought our guys did a good job of kind of getting what we wanted there,” Holtmann said.

E.J. Liddell looked like the budding star he is, putting up a team-high 20 points to go along with eight rebounds. He has a tendency to fall in love with the 3-point shot if he hits one, which he did before missing his next two, but his ability to score at multiple levels gives the offense a dynamic threat.

Justice Sueing has gradually gotten better each week, and he recorded 17 points on just seven shots – going 9-for-10 from the foul line – with seven rebounds as well.

With those two leading the way offensively, Holtmann got contributions from a bunch of players who make up an 11-man rotation that remains larger than most. Walker's late makes were key. Justin Ahrens hit two more threes. Kyle Young had a quiet six points and seven boards. Zed Key scored a pair of buckets after pushing his defender with his backside all the way under the rim. Seth Towns scored seven. All 11 available scholarship players entered the game within the first 15 minutes, and nine of them played more than 10 minutes.

The extended rotation didn’t appear to hurt the Buckeyes, who scored a clean 79 points and managed their best adjusted defensive efficiency against a team not named Nebraska or Morehead State.

“I'm proud of our guys' effort,” Holtmann said. “I thought we were able to control certain aspects of the game, and the things we focused on I thought they took into the game plan. We still have some possessions that we need to fix and some things that we need to do better. That kind of weighs on me as much as anything. But really good win, really good win for our team and really good win for us here moving forward.”

The Buckeyes, since Holtmann started calling them a work in progress two months ago, have remained on an upward trajectory. Both their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency have trended in a positive direction, and they have now won six of seven games.

With eight games remaining in the regular season that’ll conclude in Champaign, Illinois, on March 6, the main question now is a simple one: How good can this team get?

View 74 Comments