Entering this season the Big Ten was widely thought to be the nation's premier conference, and thus far nothing I've seen has led me to revise that assumption. Whether the evidence of choice is Indiana's total annihilation of North Carolina in Bloomington, or Michigan's somewhat more civilized but nevertheless still convincing win over North Carolina State in Ann Arbor, the Big Ten has more than lived up to its advance hype.
Among the conference's elite teams this season, however, there is one group that stands out as something of an enigma: Ohio State. There the Buckeyes sit, ranked No. 4 in the nation, in close and elevated proximity to the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. But what do we really know about Thad Matta's latest team?
OSU's "best" win to date was their 77-66 victory over Washington at the Hall of Fame Tip Off in Uncasville, Connecticut. Posting a double-digit win over a major-conference foe on a neutral floor is all well and good, of course, but is this team really prepared to compete for a title in the nation's best conference?
We're about to find out. Nothing like a game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium to diffuse a little analytical uncertainty. Here's what I'll be watching for with Matta's team, not only this evening but also in the weeks to come.
Can Deshaun Thomas be stopped?
I have a history with Thomas. In January of 2011 I ranked him very high on my annual list of the nation's top 25 freshmen, and back then I had this to say:
There's every indication [Thomas] could extend the rebounding, the 59 percent two-point shooting, and the starring role in the offense...across more minutes. It's just that Thad Matta has no minutes to give. His team's 16-0.
I was told politely but unmistakably by more than a few Ohio State fans that I was crazy. Thomas, they informed me knowingly, was a chucker, pure and simple.
Yeah? Well, who's crazy now? If we were awarding national Player of the Year honors at the end of November (and one of these seasons we really should do that, just to shake things up), you could make a good case that Cody Zeller, Doug McDermott, Isaiah Canaan, and even C.J. McCollum would all have to stand aside and applaud as Deshaun Thomas went up to the podium to collect his trophy. Thomas has had what I referred to earlier this week as The Perfect Month on offense.
Thus far on the young season Thomas has personally accounted for a whopping 35 percent of the Buckeyes' shot attempts during his minutes. We've seen that level of prominence before in Columbus, back when Evan Turner was building his (ultimately winning) case for national Player of the Year in 2009-10. But here's the thing: Thomas has been way more efficient than Turner was. It's early, sure, but it's never too early to applaud 58 percent two-point shooting or 48 percent accuracy from beyond the arc that's being achieved in a (very) high-volume context. Throw in the 94 percent shooting at the line, and the 6-7 Thomas presents us with a vision of the archetypal scorer. He can put points on the board from anywhere. And has.
Can Deshaun Thomas get some help?
The historical parallel between Thomas this season and Turner in 2009-10 is instructive, because it turns out the similarities run deeper than just what we see with these two players. The two Ohio State teams -- the one we see today, and the one we saw in 2009-10 -- are also reminiscent of each other, at least statistically.
Regular readers know I like to measure a team's experience with a metric called returning possession-minutes, which gauges not only playing time but also a player's work load on offense. The Buckeye team led by Turner three years ago returned 61 percent of the possession-minutes from the previous season. And this season? With the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, Matta brought back 55 percent of the possession-minutes from 2011-12. Turner and Thomas were and are starring on teams with very similar levels of experience.
But that's where the similarities end. Turner was functioning as a point guard, and he could dish assists to the likes of Sullinger, Buford, and even, on occasion, Thomas himself. This season Aaron Craft is the point guard, of course, and an excellent one at that. The real question posed by this offense, however, is who is going to shoulder some of the scoring load alongside Thomas?
Matta's custom in Columbus has been to replace departing stars with newly minted McDonald's All-American-level freshmen. This season, conversely, the shots that were taken by Sullinger and Buford a year ago are now going not only to Thomas and Craft but also to returning players like Lenzelle Smith, Shannon Scott, and LaQuinton Ross.
I spoke with Ohio State associate head coach Dave Dickerson this week, and he told me the staff is actively and eagerly encouraging other players to come forward and take some of the scoring burden off of Thomas. In particular, when I noted that Craft's performance to date suggests that he could assume a larger role on offense and still be quite efficient, Dickerson offered an amen: "We've challenged Aaron to be more assertive offensively."
Craft's success in rising to that challenge, and that of his teammates who are not named "Deshaun Thomas," comprises the central question facing Matta and Ohio State -- tonight and this season.
Can the defense be as good as it (pretty much) always is under Matta?
You've likely heard that Thomas isn't all that interested in defense, and that Craft is sensational on D, and both assertions are fair enough as far as they go. But OSU's impressive record of achievement on defense starts with their head coach. Throughout Matta's tenure, Ohio State has taken care of their defensive glass and stayed away from foul trouble. ("The one thing that Thad Matta's teams have always done is not foul," Dickerson told me, correctly.)
Craft may garner the lion's share of the praise on D, but don't look past Scott, who's proven to be highly effective at recording takeaways in the Buckeyes' first four games. And while OSU has built much of its defensive success on staying away from fouls, the team can really benefit if that lesson gets through to 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams. An outstanding shot blocker who recorded memorable and valuable minutes in Ohio State's Elite Eight win over Syracuse last March, William has made only fleeting appearances thus far this season due to foul trouble. If he can stay on the floor, Williams can lift this defense to another level.
Ohio State confronts the tallest of tasks in their next game, facing what most people agree is either the best or second-best team in the nation on the road. If the Buckeyes win, of course, they'll make a strong case that they belong among the nation's top teams. But even if OSU loses to Duke in Cameron Indoor, there's a good chance this team will be heard from in March. All it will take is some help for Thomas on offense and continued Matta-variety soundness on defense.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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