COLUMBUS — Finally, after an up-and-down start in the Big Ten, it would appear that Ohio State’s season is beginning a longer ascent.
Three consecutive victories — the past two over ranked opponents — have the Buckeyes tied for second in the conference at the midpoint of the championship race. Little more than a week ago, they stood eighth. Monday they were ranked No. 20 in The Associated Press poll.
Is this the real thing or fool’s gold? Coach Thad Matta is withholding judgment while he tries to draw more of the right stuff out of a roster he still is not sure about from one day to the next.
Five questions on the Buckeyes as they head into a Wednesday night game at Purdue:
1. Where is this team in the Big Ten pecking order?
Wisconsin seems a level above the rest, even after losing point guard Traevon Jackson to a foot injury. Behind the Badgers, though, two losses separate the next nine teams. The Buckeyes are 4-3 against the other eight, with two of those losses to Iowa, decisively. Iowa has struggled somewhat otherwise but has played the Big Ten’s toughest schedule. So for now, the Hawkeyes are second and Ohio State third.
2. Has the defense improved since Matta ditched the zone and went man-to-man during the Illinois game?
Yes. Iowa and Illinois averaged 1.17 points per possession until Matta had seen enough with 4:15 left in the first half against Illinois. Since then, opponents have averaged 1.00. That doesn’t meet the standard of Matta’s recent teams, but this one has more margin for error because it can score.
3. The Buckeyes are 3-0 since Matta tweaked the starting lineup and traded size for energy. What happens when they face teams that are bigger and physical inside, such as Purdue and Michigan State in the next couple of weeks?
Stay tuned. Michigan State and Purdue are the best in the Big Ten in field-goal-percentage defense and two of the three best (with Iowa) on the offensive glass. It won’t help Ohio State that both games are on the road. The Buckeyes will have to be active on defense from the start and get productive minutes from Amir Williams, especially against the Boilermakers’ two 7-footers.
4. Freshman D’Angelo Russell has started being mentioned as a candidate for national player of the year. Seriously?
He’s a long shot because the odds-on favorites, Wisconsin senior Frank Kaminsky and Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, have done nothing to diminish their profiles. Also, Kaminsky is in the same conference as Russell and is a senior with a greater body of work. But Russell has raised his profile the past few weeks with 33 points in one game, 14 rebounds in each of two others, and 10 assists in a fourth.
5. How well does this end for the Buckeyes?
The Big Ten portion of the season, at least, is going to end better than it started. After another road test over the next three weeks, Ohio State gets three of its final four games at home, including the finale against Wisconsin. Jae’Sean Tate added toughness, passion and energy to a lineup that needed all three, and he’s starting to score inside, which creates space for others. The biggest variable, again, is how the Buckeyes handle big, physical front lines.