Anatomy of an Upset

I've already gushed over Chris Holtmann and the job he's done with Ohio State. Still early into his tenure, the coach has the Buckeyes primed for a NCAA Tournament berth and potentially the conference title. Keep in mind, this was a team that did not make the NIT field last year and then summarily lost three of its best players from that mediocre squad. While Kaleb Wesson is a fine recruit, there were no program-changing, 5-star surefire lottery picks in the incoming class. The only addition was Keita Bates-Diop from injury. When we last saw him, KBD was a solid defender with an inconsistent outside shot but ultimately a net positive on both ends of the floor.

The kids grow up so fast—KBD is obviously much more than that at the moment, but his return and improvement cannot itself explain Ohio State's January 7th trouncing of a Michigan State team with realistic ambitions of a national championship. With OSU standing at 7-0 in the Big Ten, and looking like a conference title contender, I suspect we'll all look back at the Michigan State Game as the moment when most realized that these Buckeyes—and Holtmann by extension—are not to be taken lightly. Of course, upsets happen, and when they do happen, there are some usual suspects. Sure, the Buckeyes shot well from 3-point range (7/15), and they turned the ball over at half the rate of the Spartans (9% to 18%), but to me, the most bewildering number in the box score was 55 percent. That was Ohio State's two-point percentage.

You could be forgiven for not having predicted this. After all, Michigan State's two-point defense is (KenPom Era) historically great so far this season. As of this writing, the Spartans have permitted opponents to make just 36.3 percent of their 2s, the absurd number that results from having to navigate a paint that features both Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward.

Jackson is tall and athletic and Ward is long armed and has a track record of exceptional rim defense. So those seem like stable commodities. Ohio State's two-point offense, however, appears more suspect. Sure, it's been the best in Big Ten play, a scorching 56 percent, but per hoop-math.com, it's not because the Buckeyes are dunking a lot (ranking 168th in percentage of shot attempts at the rim) or all that exceptionally (42nd in field goal percentage at the rim). Mostly, OSU has been making mid-range shots (27th in two-point jumpshot field goal percentage).

Me, an intellectual, might conclude that kind of success is fleeting. A statistical oddity surely to be wiped out when KBD and the mid-range All-Stars take on the likes of Ward and Jackson, who earlier limited UNC (a mid-range heretic in today's game) to 33 percent on 2s, and humbled Nebraska, who managed to make a mere 7 of 40 attempts. In fact, entering the game against the Buckeyes, here are the list of teams that managed to make at least 50 percent of their 2s against the Spartans:

Did you finish, or do you need more time. No, your browswer is fine, it's just that it had not happened before. Keep in mind, MSU has played the likes of Duke (58 percent) and Maryland (54 percent), so there were some heavy contenders that failed to reach that threshold.

But then came Holtmann and the Buckeyes. How did it happen?

Well, obviously KBD was a big part of that. The redshirt junior poured in a career-high 32 points. And frankly, it was just one of those games, even for him. Michigan State opted to put Jaren Jackson—a 6-11 center that can move, and one of the nation's premier shotblockers—on KBD to start. But the Buckeye managed to hit some shots even over Jackson's long arms.

These are not easy shots, with Jackson giving a good contest on each. So there's no magic yet, it's just a player making plays. But a defender like Jackson is not going to get abused by anyone at the collegiate level over an entire game.

The other thing you notice about Ohio State is that as soon as there is a mismatch, the Buckeyes look to exploit it. Here, we have quasi-transition as Michigan State is scrambling back on defense after a missed shot. As is frequently the case in these situations, the defense looks to find the nearest man, and worry about mismatches later. OSU where the weakness is, and exploits it immediately.

A lot of teams in a similar situation would have started with the normal offense, which usually involves a screen somewhere. That would have afforded the defense the opportunity to switch to a better matchup. Ohio State did not want to risk that.

The Buckeyes also seemingly attacked the weaker defenders, running a lot of action in Josh Langford's direction, in particular. Langford is long and athletic and can hold his own on the perimeter, but his off-ball defense is not an asset at this point. Here, he turns his back to the basketball in order to give his full attention to Kam Williams, who probably is not going to do a lot of damage in the paint.

This was not the only time Langford was overly concerned with Williams' interior capabilities:

Just before that, Ohio State ran some action that was intended to give Williams an open cut to the hoop, and basically leave Langford along on an island:

So, the Buckeyes read their scouting reports, but they also punish you for not paying attention to your own. At this point in his career, Kaleb Wesson is a force over his left shoulder, but he's not much of a threat over his right shoulder. When the Spartans mixed that up and showed too much of a double team, Wesson was ready to pass (because he certainly was not looking to shoot from this position).

Also, I continue to be befuddled by Kenny Goins' playing time. You'd think that a team equipped with Nick Ward, Miles Bridges, and Jaren Jackson would have little playing time to dole out to the undersized junior. But he's still solidly in the rotation, and draws defensive assignments like guarding KBD. That's...not a great idea. Here, Goins knows he has to help on the drive to the paint, but also knows he can't cheat off KBD very much without getting burned on that. The final decision was to basically guard no one.

I don't get it.

That said, I don't think anyone outside of Jackson stood a chance of containing KBD on this day. Bridges took a run at it as well, and did not fare well. Here, he's late in recognizing the slip, and is so concerned about recovering he's unable to get a hand up to discourage a jumper.

My takeaway from all of this is that first of all, Holtmann is not running some kind of unique offensive system. From a structural standpoint, it's mostly ball-screen action on one side of the floor with screening on the other side mostly with the intent not to clog up the paint. But OSU's edge seems to come from gameplanning. Weak defender? Buckeyes will focus the attack there. Ball screen defense has a weakness? Look for it to be exploited.

This is not unique, of course. Every team rolls into a game with a detailed scouting report with all sorts of plans, counterattacks, and points of emphasis. But it's been a while since I've seen one as well-executed as was OSU's against the Spartans.

I'm certainly impressed.