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Thursday, October 13, 2005
 
Preview - Ohio State Buckeyes
Alright guys, you heard Billie Jean King, no crying in the breast milk. We got plenty of work to do, let's go! - Patches O'Houlihan, Dodgeball

The motivational words of a dodgeball legend echo the sentiment that new head coach Thad Matta was able to communicate to his players while turning around Ohio State's basketball program last year. It would have been easy for his players to give less than a full effort after learning they had no opportunity for post-season action, but Matta managed to consistently inspire tournament-quality play from his team, including the dramatic victory against an undefeated and top-ranked Illinois team.

Matta is also building excitement for the future by drawing commitments to what appears to be the country's most talented recruiting class for 2006. It's a good time to be a Buckeye fan, and with the 2005 squad's most important players back for another run, this season should only expedite Ohio State's return to national prominence.

Important Info, 2004-05

Conf. games only
Offensive Efficiency: 101.0, sixth

Defensive Efficiency: 98.2, fourth

Expected Record: 9.1 - 6.9, fifth

Actual Record: 8 - 8, sixth
How did the Buckeyes go from a sub-.500 team to winning 20 games in one year? Better defense, plain and simple. By allowing 109 points per 100 possessions (PPP) during the 2004 Big Ten season, Ohio State challenged Penn State for the title of conference's worst defense. Last year's team was significantly better, finishing fourth after giving up just 98 PPP, four below the league average.

I think Matta deserves a lot of the credit for that improvement. In my current view, offense is largely dependent on individual talent, but defense can be influenced by strategy to a greater degree (see: Bo Ryan). The Ohio State case study reflects that theory, because the superior 2005 defense contained most of the players on the previous season's roster (see Table 1). You wouldn't get many arguments if you said that replacing Jim O'Brien with Matta was the most significant change to the roster.
Playing Time, as %Min
Name 03-04 04-05
Tony Stockman .81 .68
Velimir Radinovic .69 -
J.J. Sullinger .68 .65
Terence Dials .67 .80
B. Fuss-Cheatham .61 .55
Ricardo Billings .38 .03
Shun Jenkins .29 -
Nick Dials .28 -
Ivan Harris .24 .48
Matt Sylvester .14 .49
Je'Kel Foster - .63
Jamar Butler - .47

Some of the new faces deserve a mention, though, since the biggest gains on defense were made by shutting down the perimeter. While Ohio State got torched from downtown in 2004 (Big Ten teams hit 39% against them), new additions Jamar Butler and Je'Kel Foster helped shore up this major weakness last year. The tighter defense yielded a lower percentage (33%), but more importantly they allowed far fewer attempts. Opponents took 36% of their shots outside the arc in 2004, but only 28% in 2005, which was easily the lowest rate in the league. With Terence Dials back to clog the lane for 32-34 mpg, this year's team can again afford to overplay outside.

Matta's style of offense was also a bit of a contrast from the prior year. Instead of pounding the ball inside nearly every time, Ohio State usually surrounded Dials with four guys ready and willing to shoot. As a result, the Buckeyes went from last to first in 3A/FGA, jumping from 28% in 2004 to 40% last year (Big Ten games only). This didn't pay immediate dividends, as the team's offensive rating was only 1 PPP better last year, but the offensive system should be a good fit for the stable of shooters that will be on hand this year. The players that return this season combined to shoot 38% on threes last year, and will be joined by NJCAA All-American Sylvester Mayes, who hit 68-164 (42%) of his threes as a sophomore. Check Table 2 for more.

Table 2
All Games, 2004-05
Player 3pt% 3ptA
Sylvester Mayes 41.5 164
Je'Kel Foster 42.8 145
Ron Lewis 33.6 134
Ivan Harris 42.7 103
Matt Sylvester 32.5 80
J.J. Sullinger 44.6 56
Jamar Butler 23.0 61
Matta's offense produced some other interesting stats. With Dials often the only legitimate post player on the court, Ohio State's offensive rebounding and free throw attempts dropped significantly. Only Northwestern was poorer at the former, while Ohio State had the Big Ten's lowest FTA / FGA rate. This came after finishing first and second in the respective categories in 2004. Illinois showed that these stats aren't very important to an offense if you can (a) shoot well and (b) avoid turnovers. Since the Buckeyes seem primed for a high shooting percentage this year, and they already had the second-best TO% behind Illinois last year, they should get away with the weak rebounding. The low turnover rate should continue to be a strength with Butler running the show. As for the free throws, Bowling Green State transfer Ron Lewis should make an immediate impact. The junior guard averaged 7.5 FTA per game in his last season, which is high for any player, let alone a guard.

Frontcourt depth could be a concern for Ohio State. Dials is the only proven rebounder, so it would help if freshman Brayden Bell is ready sooner rather than later. I don't follow recruiting too intensely, but Bell's profile on Scout.com doesn't immediately fill me with optimism - "defense and rebounding need improvement" - though that is from a year ago. He's another big body if nothing else. Matt Terwilliger will also compete for more minutes.

Put it all together, and I think you have the makings of a very solid team. Last year's group was already tournament-quality, and the most important pieces all return. The additions of Lewis and Mayes should boost an offense that's ready for a big year, and Dials will anchor one of the Big Ten's better defenses. Ohio State gets to play Purdue, Northwestern, and Penn State twice each, so 10-12 conference wins seem very attainable.

INDIVIDUAL BREAKDOWNS
New readers might wish to refer to the Stats Primer.
All ages are as of January 1, 2006.
As usual, FT/FG and 3/FG are actually abbreviations for FTA / FGA and 3A / FGA.
Blk2% is an estimation of the other team's 2-point attempts that a player blocks while he's in the game.

Terence Dials

Senior

Center

Age: 22

Height: 6-9

Weight: 255

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
01-02 32 41.2 119 18.8 62.3 .514 59.2 0.0 0.0 13.8 12.3 19.8 5.3 2.0 5.1
02-03 6 10.5 99 20.4 46.9 .594 63.2 0.0 0.0 20.0 14.1 17.3 5.7 2.3 6.6
03-04 30 66.9 102 23.6 50.5 .577 71.7 0.0 0.0 23.3 12.0 18.8 5.8 1.5 3.0
04-05 32 80.4 109 25.1 57.4 .530 61.7 0.3 0.0 15.6 10.5 18.5 3.9 1.4 1.8

Dials put up some ridiculously efficient numbers as a freshman, when he was often the fourth or fifth option on offense and could pick his spots for easy baskets. Four years down the road, his stats are climbing back into similar territory, despite taking a lot more shots and being the primary target for opposing defenses.

A lot of the improvement in Dials's scoring and rebounding was due to increased playing time, but he did get better in two important areas. He bumped his shooting percentage up to 57% while sharply cutting his turnovers, which is very impressive considering he was the team's lone post threat and using a fourth of the team's possessions. It would be nice if Dials could improve his passing out of the post, but being surrounded by reliable three point shooters should relieve some of the congestion around him this year. He'll be among a deep list of players contending for first-team Big Ten.

Dials does have a bit of an injury history. He missed half of his senior year of high school with a knee injury and most of his sophomore year at Ohio State with a stress fracture in his lumbar spine. Does that explain his decling offensive rebound and block rates? I'm not sure, but I do know that any time Dials misses this year would be pretty devastating to the Buckeyes, since there are no experienced players ready for big minutes down low.

Je'Kel Foster

Senior

Guard

Age: 22

Height: 6-3

Weight: 210

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
02-03 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
03-04 33 75.0 125 23.5 56.3 .325 83.7 55.7 41.2 13.0 4.5 14.1 22.3 4.5 -
04-05 32 63.1 114 16.0 59.6 .135 65.4 75.1 42.8 18.0 2.7 12.5 21.2 3.2 0.5

* Played first two seasons at Chipola Junior College
** Some sophomore-year stats were estimated by assuming 30 mpg

Foster transitioned very nicely from his leading man role at Chipola to being more of a three-point specialist at Ohio State. A full 3/4 of his shots last year were outside of 19 feet, 9 inches. That's probably a good thing when you can hit them as consistently as Foster does. While he doesn't often create his own shot, being on the floor with Dials, Lewis, Mayes, etc. should ensure plenty of good looks at the basket. Backcourt minutes might be a little harder to come by on this year's squad, but Foster's superior shooting, passing and defense will earn him plenty of minutes in his final season.

J.J. Sullinger

Senior

Guard / Forward

Age: 23

Height: 6-5

Weight: 210

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
01-02 29 52.9 102 23.6 44.9 .446 72.0 28.6 20.3 14.1 5.6 10.3 12.3 2.4 1.3
03-04 30 67.6 97 22.2 49.0 .472 52.1 27.0 34.3 18.3 4.8 16.4 6.8 1.5 1.8
04-05 32 65.0 115 18.5 58.8 .392 63.5 25.8 44.6 14.2 6.2 18.3 12.2 2.9 2.0

*Played at Arkansas his freshman season

Sullinger dramatically improved his shooting for the second year in a row, which resulted in a very nice junior season. Ohio State's offense could be really dangerous if he maintains that 59% eFG mark. J.J.'s willingness to battle inside made him the team's second-leading rebounder at over five a game, and his defensive rebound rate (dRb%) was essentially equal to Dials's. That kind of athleticism and versatility from a guard is invaluable to a team that looks to be rather thin up front. The next spurt of improvement needs to come at the free throw line - his and Dials's sub-par year there made the Buckeyes a 65% free throw shooting team.

Matt Sylvester

Senior

Forward

Age: 23

Height: 6-7

Weight: 220

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
01-02 3 1.3 97 15.8 40.0 .200 0.0 20.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 14.8 26.4 3.5 0.0
02-03 32 53.9 89 18.1 45.4 .224 59.0 29.3 23.5 23.5 4.5 11.2 11.5 1.3 1.1
03-04 16 13.7 86 22.7 41.7 .111 83.3 35.2 26.3 26.7 4.5 12.4 12.8 0.4 2.2
04-05 31 48.5 103 22.7 51.5 .252 76.5 39.6 32.5 18.6 4.2 10.4 14.5 0.9 1.7

Teaming Sylvester with Dials and Sullinger gives the Buckeyes a trio of well-seasoned veterans. While Sylvester lacks the quickness and leaping ability to be an impact player, his experience helps him to at least be effective. Few Big Ten teams can boast of a bench player with a league-average offensive rating. He also passes well for his size and position. Ideally he'd shoot more free throws and make a few more of his threes to help make up for any defensive shortcomings, but his game-winning shot against Illinois probably earned him a free pass from criticism for his final season.

Like Dials, health is a concern here, as Sylvester has already missed significant time from a variety of injuries. Problems with his back and calf wiped out his freshman year, and he missed half of 03-04 with an arch injury in his foot.

Ivan Harris

Junior

Forward

Age: 21

Height: 6-8

Weight: 215

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
03-04 27 23.8 104 17.8 50.0 .181 66.7 19.3 43.8 15.9 9.0 10.7 3.3 0.9 1.3
04-05 32 48.2 115 17.3 59.1 .041 75.0 53.4 42.7 11.7 6.2 13.5 7.3 1.4 1.4

Sure, Harris was supposed to be a top level recruit out of high school, and his performance to date hasn't been quite what everyone expected. While lamenting his shortcomings seems to be pretty popular, don't you at some point have to turn the finger on the "experts" who incorrectly built up the expectations in the first place? Maybe it's just me.

Yes, his rebounding was weak for a starting power forward, and it seems impossible to shoot only eight free throws in 626 minutes on the court. But sometimes you need to focus less on what you want and more on what you have - what the Buckeyes have is a 6-8 forward with a career mark of 43% from three point range. Only eight Big Ten players shot more efficiently from the floor (eFG%) last year. That seems like a rare commodity to me.

Ron Lewis

Junior

Guard

Age: 21

Height: 6-4

Weight: 190

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
02-03 29 77.4 97 24.0 45.3 .839 79.7 27.4 26.2 25.8 4.1 15.5 11.8 2.4 1.2
03-04 31 83.8 106 27.0 45.8 .637 82.0 36.6 33.6 18.5 4.3 11.9 11.3 1.3 1.5

*Played first two seasons at Bowling Green State

As mentioned earlier, Lewis possesses the ability to shoot a ton of free throws, and he capitalizes by hitting over 80% of them. His 233 FTA as a sophomore has to be one of the higher totals for a guard in recent years, though I can't confirm that. Matta's open offensive set should benefit Lewis's slashing style, and Lewis should in turn help Ohio State out of the Big Ten's free throw shooting cellar. Keep in mind, though, that he has yet to shoot very well from the field - that 45% eFG rate looks pretty meager coming from the MAC. His shot selection might be to blame, as he only hit 43% of his two-point shots as a sophomore. If his jump shot is improved, though, he could make a big impact immediately. The early returns look positvie - Lewis was the leading scorer in Ohio State's summer league. [I also profiled Lewis this summer.]

Sylvester Mayes

Junior

Guard

Age: 22

Height: 6-2

Weight: 195

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
03-04 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
04-05 30 - - - 59.2 .456 76.8 41.3 41.5 - - - - - -

*Played at Redlands Community College his first two seasons

Mayes comes to Ohio State with as much tournament experience as anyone on the roster - he teamed with Oklahoma's Taj Gray to take Redlands to the 2004 NJCAA championship game. He was forced to take on a lot more of the scoring load his sophomore year, and he proved quite capable by hitting 42% of his threes. Mayes is lauded for his quickness, and if his 3 steals per game are any indication, he should give Ohio State another solid defender.

Jamar Butler

Sophomore

Point Guard

Age: 20

Height: 6-3

Weight: 190

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
04-05 32 46.9 98 14.5 39.8 .296 87.5 56.5 23.0 21.2 1.2 10.2 31.4 2.1 0.2

It's hard not to be impressed by a kid who turned the ball over this infrequently as a freshman point guard. It would definitely be nice to see him shoot a little better, but the Buckeyes will live with his steady hand and solid defense.

Statistically, Butler's freshman season is very comparable to Drew Neitzel's at Michigan State. Both were also big scorers in high school, and became the starting PG for their team midway through the year. As for which player has the greater upside, I'm not the guy to ask.

Matt Terwilliger

Sophomore

Forward / Center

Age: 20

Height: 6-8

Weight: 225

Year G %Min O Rtg %Poss eFG% FT/FG FT% 3/FG 3pt% TO% oRb% dRb% Pass Stl% Blk2%
04-05 15 5.8 94 18.7 45.8 .083 50.0 0.0 0.0 12.7 11.1 7.8 0.0 0.8 2.8

Terwilliger's lack of size was one reason for his lack of playing time last year, so he tried to add a few pounds during the offseason. He'll have plenty of opportunity to play if he proves he can hit the boards. He put up 5 ppg with the Big Ten's foreign touring team over the summer.

Brayden Bell

Freshman

Forward / Center

Age: 19

Height: 6-9

Weight: 240


Bell will compete with Terwilliger over backup minutes behind Dials. Ideally one of them can provide some rebounding to reduce the team's major weakness. Bell likes to pop a few treys, but this team really doesn't need another Harris or Sylvester.
Comments:
Another interesting preview that provides some perspective on OSU that no one else has provided.

It's hard to know what to make of the Buckeyes in a deeper and more balanced Big Ten. As is in the case of almost every team except Michigan State and Penn State, they could be really good or they could fall to the second half of the conference.

With Butler, Mayes, Lewis, Sullinger and Foster in the backcourt, it seems likely that a very good backcourt will emerge both on offense and defense. The Buckeyes will almost certainly go with a three guard offense in which Sullinger probabley gets his minutes mostly at the 3. Matta should be able to find combos that work well together, although it's not at all clear who will get the bulk of the playing time (Matta did a good job of distributing time last year, so perhaps all of them will play between 18-30 minutes a game). I suspect Butler and Lewis will be the starters with Mayes as the spark that gets the most minutes off the bench. Foster is a good shoooter and seemed a pretty solid defender last year.

Dials will need some help up front. Ivan Harris improved last year, but needs to do more down low (his weaknesses would be less noticeable if Ohio State had a solid rebounding power forward it could insert into the lineup at times). Sullinger will probably start at the 3 as he is a good rebounder (2nd on the team) for his size as well as a proficient scorer (53%). Sylvester will do his thing again coming off the bench.

Except at guard, Ohio State is not a deep team. As you note, Brayden Bell (or, perhaps, Matt Terwilliger) will have to contribute (or at least not detract) off the bench early as he will definitely get some minutes in relif of Dials . Matt Marinchik was not great, but at least he allowed Dials some downtime. In addition, Dials has always been subject to foul trouble.
 
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