Skull Session: Ohio State Men’s Basketball Has Seen Better Times, the Analytics of Jim Knowles’ First Defense and Jaxon-Smith Njigba Ranks His Top-Five Plays As a Buckeye

By Chase Brown on February 6, 2023 at 5:00 am
Aaron Craft
David Banks / USA TODAY Sports

Good morning Starshine. The Earth says hello.

What if I told you Sammy Sasso has that dawg in him?

I hope you all had a fabulous weekend. Let's have a good Monday, shall we?

 REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES? With nine losses in its last 10 games, Ohio State men's basketball is in quite the funk. It's probably better to call it a historic funk, as Chris Holtmann's squad is currently in the program's worst stretch since 1997-98, when the Buckeyes lost 19 of their final 20 contests in Jim O'Brien's first year as head coach.

I can look for positive spins on Ohio State's situation – the Buckeyes playing hard for Holtmann late in games, Brice Sensabaugh's trajectory as a top-15 pick (is this even a positive for the Buckeyes, though?) or Bruce Thornton's emergence against Michigan – but honestly, I don't care to elaborate on any of that at the moment.

To elaborate would be to take a hard look at how bleak the rest of the season will be for the Buckeyes, which would make me sad. Instead, I will reflect on when Ohio State men's basketball was fun and made me happy, a maneuver kids of today call “coping.”

And what better way to cope than to look back to 2011, a time when Ohio State hoops was as cool as it's ever been, and watch Jon Diebler, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft's rendition of “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus?

Warning: Aaron Craft's singing voice caused some listeners (me, the guy writing this article) to have their ears bleed. Viewer discretion is advised.

 ANALYSIS OF A MAD SCIENTIST. When Jim Knowles was officially hired as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator on Jan. 2, 2022, he was brought to Columbus to improve an Ohio State defense that had struggled in recent years.

He did that... for the most part.

In Knowles' first season, Ohio State's defense looked better than it did in the previous regime under Kerry Coombs, allowing 51 fewer yards and 1.7 fewer points per game this year than last.

Advanced analytics such as stop rate, quantified by The Athletic's Max Olson, prove that Ohio State was elite at forcing punts, turnovers or turnovers on downs in 2022. However, as was the case in 2021, the Buckeyes' Achilles heel was allowing explosive plays.

IOWA 150 78.7% 1.09
MARSHALL 153 78.4% 1.20
MICHIGAN 168 77.4% 1.18
ILLINOIS 146 76.7% 1.10
PENN STATE 168 76.2% 1.33
AIR FORCE 120 75.8% 1.31
JAMES MADISON 143 75.5% 1.40
GEORGIA 162 74.7% 1.28
TROY 152 74.3% 1.44
OHIO STATE 171 74.3% 1.50

Data released last week by also concluded that the Buckeyes' defense fell prey to the big play. It added depth to Olson’s claim that explosive plays were the unit’s weakness – one Ohio State’s opponents exposed during Knowles’ first season in Columbus.

From Marcus Hartman of Dayton Daily News:

Ohio State’s defensive success rate, which measures each play by the percentage of yards to go for a first down the offense gained, improved from 43.4 last year to 35.7 this season, ranking eighth in the country according to

But opponent explosiveness, which measures the percentage of available yards gained on any successful play, increased from 1.27 to 1.4, a figure ranking 123rd out of 131 teams.

This trend held up on standard downs, where the Buckeyes were ninth in success rate and 112th in explosiveness, and on passing downs, where they ranked 14th and 129th. It was also evident in comparing how Ohio State stopped the run (seventh in success rate/114th in explosiveness) and the pass (27th/117th).

As he did after Ohio State's losses to Michigan and Georgia, Knowles took full responsibility for his defense's poor performances this season during a press conference last week. He also claimed the Buckeyes will take another step forward as (most of) his players enter another year in his system and have this offseason to develop strength, conditioning and technique in addition to an understanding of what he expects out of each position.

"Now that I’m coming into year two, I’ve got to be even more demanding and put on more steam with the players individually on the preciseness of the technique,” Knowles said. “And I’ve got to really bear down. I mean, you’re coming in the first year, and you want to make sure you connect with everybody. And now’s the time for me to use it. I need to use that connection and hone down on those techniques.”

For the sake of Buckeye Nation and all that is holy, let's hope Knowles is on the right track. All Ohio State has needed to compete for and win a national championship in recent years is a defense that can make a stop when needed. Let's see if the 2023 version of the Silver Bullets is up for that task. If they are, look out.

 JSN'S TOP FIVE. In his three seasons as a Buckeye, Jaxon Smith-Njigba collected 110 receptions for 1,698 yards and 10 touchdowns in 23 games. He etched his name in the Ohio State football record book with 95 catches for 1,606 yards – both single-season records – and nine scores as a sophomore.

Smith-Njigba's 110 catches included many highlight-reel grabs. However, when the folks over at the Big Ten Network asked the Ohio State star to rank his favorite catches as a member of the Buckeyes, they asked him to limit the list to five. Here are his choices:

Incredibly, JSN's No. 1 pick was the second catch of his career in his very first game back in Week 1 of the 2020 season. Ohio Stadium was almost empty that day because had 100,000+ Buckeye fans been in attendance to witness that snag, the place would have erupted loud enough to burst people's eardrums.

It's unfortunate COVID in 2020 and a hamstring injury in 2022 left Buckeye fans with such a short memory of his time at Ohio State. But one thing is for sure: If JSN keeps making catches like these once he gets to the pros, we'll be hearing his name for a long, long time.

 DAY, BABB RECEIVE AWARDS. The Columbus Chapter of the National Football Foundation will award Ryan Day and Kamryn Babb with awards during its 62nd annual Scholar-Athlete Awards Banquet at the Ohio Union on Monday.

Day will receive the Ohio Gold Award, an honor the chapter presents annually to a former player, coach, administrator or person who has had a positive impact on football in Central Ohio. Previous winners of the award with an Ohio State background include Joey Galloway, Troy Smith, Orlando Pace, Eddie George and Archie Griffin, among others.

Meanwhile, Babb will receive the Tyson Gentry Courage Award, which is presented annually to a player, coach staff member or fan whose actions best demonstrate the qualities of courageous leadership shown by Gentry.

Both Day and Babb are incredibly deserving of the awards they will receive Monday. For Day, I think back to how he treated Harry Miller with compassion as he stepped away from football and his continued advocacy for mental health at the Wexner Medical Center as reasons he has made a positive impact in Central Ohio.

As for Babb, his courage was on full display when he caught an 8-yard touchdown pass against Indiana this past season. To see the way his teammates celebrated that otherwise routine play in college football tells you all you need to know about how meaningful it was for him and how much of a leader he was in the Buckeyes’ locker room.

 SONG OF THE DAY. “Golden” by Harry Styles.

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