The last time Chris Holtmann won fewer than 20 games in a season, Jim Calhoun was still at UConn. He's one of the more successful coaches in the Barry Collier tree, which is saying something because that's a tree that includes Brad Stevens and Thad Matta. Last year's Ohio State team didn't have a point guard and it also featured a bunch of turnover-prone freshmen that couldn't shoot. Even so, the Buckeyes managed to get to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Bubble team? Sure. But keeping things from going off the rails with a roster with so many holes is deserving of praise. This year should feature far fewer holes. First, those freshmen (Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington) are now sophomores (Jaedon LeDee transferred). Combo guard CJ Walker is eligible after transferring from Florida State. Holtmann brings in a monster freshmen class which includes three top-50 players. Talent should not be a problem.
That was not always the case last year. Ohio State's primary offense was to get the ball to Kaleb Wesson and go from there. The good news is that the big man was a good enough passer that he could usually make teams pay if they paid too much attention to him:
But, that worked up to a point. Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars deployed a quick, aggressive double team against Wesson, and he wasn't able to get the ball to an open man fast enough.
Wesson himself had 5 turnovers in the loss. Houston was able to double effectively because it knew that Wesson was the starting point for the offense. Ideally, you run something to loosen the defense up a bit—get defenders in motion—before engaging with a post-up. And Ohio State did run a lot of that last season, primarily continuity ball screen. Here's a quick primer:
This type of action is very good at getting the defense moving, and generally distracting a defense so it's not quite clear on who should, for instance, double team the post on the entry pass. The problem with Ohio State, however, was that by the time the team got to the NCAA Tournament the scout was well-established that if teams simply switched on all the ball screens, there wasn't enough talent to actually exploit the ensuing mismatches. Purdue did this to them earlier in the year, and Ohio State just doesn't create any advantage out of this type of action.
Against Houston, Ohio State again ran action intended to get the ball to Wesson in the post. But if that didn't happen, too often there just wasn't a backup plan. Here, OSU runs some weave action to set up a ball screen, with the idea of feeding Wesson.
Given his shooting, I'm guessing Washington was instructed to attempt the 3 only if dared to. Frankly, I'm surprised Houston didn't. Instead, he's greeted with a hard closeout. Wesson should have sealed his man a lot earlier than he attempts to, and Young should have attacked the rim from the opposite side rather than just standing and watching.
Frankly, "standing and watching" was what Ohio State did a little too much of last season. Defenses were able to focus on the primary action, and the Buckeyes frequently did not have a counter. That should all change this year, given the aforementioned weapons. It's possible that Wesson may not even be the primary option on offense, though odds are he will be on the shortlist for Big Ten Player of the Year. The only real hole in his game is committing fouls, which in turn limited his minutes. He's trimmed down considerably this year, and I'm guessing it was an effort to stay in position on defense as well as improve his conditioning.
Both sophomores appear primed for a potential breakout, though I'm a bit more bullish on Washington, given his high usage when he was on the floor last season. Inaccurate but gunshy freshmen have a way of turning into more accurate but still gunshy sophomores. Freshmen EJ Liddell, a two-time Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois, and Alonzo Gaffney will push Kyle Young for minutes. Holtmann is hoping DJ Carton can take over the point guard spot, freeing up Walker and Washington to focus on getting open. As for what they run, I expect a lot of continuity ball screen or variants thereof, and given the personnel, I would not be surprised to see 4 out, 1 in action like what Rick Byrd runs at Belmont.
Defensively, Ohio State has been consistently solid under Holtmann, and I do not expect any regression there. Luther Muhammad is a standout on that end—as a freshman, he rated in the 83rd percentile on defense according to Synergy. In fact, not a single rotation Buckeye was rated below average. Part of this is to their credit, but Holtmann is a relentless gameplanner as well. Ball screen defense has always been a specialty of his, in part because it's unpredictable. Depending on who is defending the ball, screener, where it is on the court, who has the ball, etc., the Buckeyes will hedge, hard hedge, sag, and/or soft show. Who knows, maybe we'll see more switching as the roster upgrades its athleticism. But the moving target aspect makes it difficult for opposing offenses to strategize around.
With John Beilein and Bo Ryan gone, there's some room at the top of the Big Ten alongside Michigan State. My hunch is that before long, we'll become accustomed to penciling in Ohio State as a perennial top-3 team in the league, and I think that begins this season.