It still blows my mind Chris Holtmann's basketball Buckeyes have won six straight and nine of their last 10 games, including victories over ranked Rutgers, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa squads.
The spectacular and somewhat shocking run vaulted Ohio State into Big Ten regular season title contention on the strength of an 11-4 record with five games to play. The homestretch begins tonight at Penn State before things get wild at home against No. 3 ranked and Big Ten-leading Michigan on Sunday afternoon.
Ohio State's superb run rests on the back of a scoring attack ranked in the top five nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. A fairly modest three players average in double figures in points per game with E.J. Liddell leading the charge (15.1) followed by Duane Washington (14.6) and Justice Sueing (10.7).
Digging a little deeper, here's five additional metrics driving Ohio State's run at a possible Big Ten title and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
ZED USES HIS ASS AND POUNDS THE GLASS
Freshman pivot Zed Key has been nothing short of sensational in filling his role, averaging 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in just 12.8 minutes per game. He plays within himself, as evidenced by his 64.9% shooting from the floor, and seemingly always comes off the bench and grabs an automatic deuce after using his posterior to carve out space for an entry pass directly under the hoop. He then, ho-hum, spins in either direction to finish with either hand to announce his presence.
Beyond the timely points and energy, Key is already the most productive rebounder on the team. Yes, E.J. Liddell (6.7), Kyle Young (5.9) and Justice Sueing (5.8) average more rips per game but no Buckeye comes close to Key when it comes to measuring rebounds per minute which is a necessary way to look at his production considering that trio averages between 26 and 28 minutes per game while Key logs less than half that.
Through 21 games, Key is pulling down .30 rebounds per minute, well ahead of the pace set by Liddell (.24), Young (.22) and Sueing (.21).
Even better, Key's been dominant on the offensive glass, averaging .14 offensive rebounds per minute compared to .06 each for Liddell, Young and Sueing. In fact, Key's comparators are actually Kofi Cockburn of Illinois and Purdue's Trevion Williams, aka the league's top-two rebounders per game. Williams edges Key with .15 offensive boards per minute while Cockburn sits behind him at .12 per minute. Not bad company.
Senior forward Kyle Young's been playing like a cagey vet for years. He generally doesn't try to do things the team doesn't need him to do and he's really developed a couple go-to moves around the basket, particularly a soft little jump hook when spinning to his left from the right low block / baseline area.
He willingly does the dirty work, typically leading to at least one nasty spill per game, and ranks second on the team in rebounds per game at 5.9.
Another thing Young does that isn't often talked about is rarely making a poor decision with the ball. Young hasn't turned it over once during the last three games (91 minutes) and hasn't turned it over more than once in any of this season's 21 games. In thirteen different games so far this year, his stat line showed zero turnovers.
In fact, Young has turned it over two or more times in a game just twice in his last 51 contests dating back to March of the 2018-19 season.
Look, I get it, he's not the point guard so it's not as if he has the ball in his hands a ton but Young has just eight turnovers against 22 assists so far this season. For comparison, fellow baseliner Liddell has 27 turnovers versus 23 assists to this point in the season.
Nearly every game the announcers remind us CJ Walker is a sniper from the free throw line and rightfully so as the senior point guard has buried 95.2% of his attempts (59-of-62). Maybe more mind-blowing is that 41% of his total points have come from the stripe so far this year.
But Walker isn't the only one shooting it well from the free throw line and collectively, the Buckeyes have done a great job earning trips to the charity stripe.
Four different Buckeyes in Holtmann's rotation are shooting over 80% from the line including Walker, Seth Towns (88.9%), Duane Washington (87.9%) and Kyle Young (82.6%). E.J. Liddell is shooting a respectable 75.9% and leads the team with 82 points from the line.
Throw all that into a pot and Ohio State ranks No. 6 in the country with 17.4 made free throws per game and No. 2 with 25.1 made free throws per 100 possessions. The team's 77.2% accuracy from the stripe ranks No. 24 in the country.
RELEASE, ROTATION, SPLASH
It's wild to think about how Justin Ahrens was seemingly fighting for his slot in the pecking order among the reserves as recently as last summer. Now the junior out of Versailles, Ohio is a starter on the nation's No. 4 ranked team.
Similar to Walker's free throw prowess, the reality Ahrens has made just two 2-point field goals so far this year is a factoid announcers just can't wait to share. It's indeed a wild stat but what's more wild is the fact Ahrens is shooting 46.9% from downtown on 46-of-98 shooting so far this season.
If he can keep his current pace, he'll slot just behind Jon Diebler in Ohio State's record book for single-season three-point accuracy. Diebler buried 50.2% of his tries in 2010-11. Currently in second place, William Buckets drained 44.2% of his three point tries alongside Diebler that same season.
Ahrens has at least one made three pointer in 12 straight games and 18 of 21 contests so far this season. He's made at least three triples in nine different games.
His accuracy trajectory is also Diebler-esque. Ahrens made 38.8% as a freshman, boosted that number to 40.4% as a sophomore and now sits at the noted 46.9% through 21 games this season. Diebler shot 28.9% as a freshman, 41.6% a year later, 42.0% as a junior and finally, 50.2% as a wily senior.
I still can't believe just how meaningful Ahrens has been to this current team's success. Confidence (and preparation to be sure) is a hell of a drug.
Valuing the basketball wasn't a hallmark of Holtmann's first three teams in Columbus but this year, things are breaking in a different direction.
After ranking anywhere from No. 72 to No. 139 in turnovers per game across Holtmann's first three years, the 2020-21 Buckeyes are averaging just 10.3 turnovers per contest, good for No. 8 in the country and No. 3 in the Big Ten.
Similarly, Ohio State slots No. 8 nationally in turnovers per offensive play at 13.2% including just 11.3% over the last three games. Last year? No. 179 at 16.6%.
Taking care of the basketball at an elite level is certainly playing a part in Ohio State's overall offensive efficiency.