Hickey: Is Ohio State basketball unlucky, flawed, or a little of both?
Ohio State is, without question, the nation’s best “12th-place” basketball team.
Of course, that’s not a distinction that will get you very far in college basketball. Usually not even as far as the NIT. And with an 11-9 overall record, not even that tournament is assured for a team that sits at 3-6 in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes, who have lost 6-of-7, need to turn it around quickly. And on paper, they’re capable. In fact, they shouldn’t even be in this situation in the first place.
Ohio State is rated 26th in the country in the NCAA’s NET rankings. KenPom places the Buckeyes No. 21. So does fellow analytics guru Bart Torvik.
The Buckeyes are 8th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. And though the defense isn’t stellar, it’s still a respectable 76th in adjusted efficiency.
Which begs the question — how on earth is this team currently 12th in the B1G?
Some call it luck.
Ohio State: The nation’s unluckiest team
Mathematically speaking, at least, the Buckeyes rank dead last nationally in luck. That’s according to Ken Pomeroy, who actually has a metric charting what most of us would consider to be unquantifiable.
According to Pomeroy, luck is “the deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record using the correlated gaussian method.”
In plain English, based on how many points a team has scored and allowed during a season, the numbers should give you an expected record for that team. Ohio State is averaging 77.8 points per game and allowing 66.7 points per game, which obviously doesn’t correlate with a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble, much less the NIT bubble.
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So, what’s the source of this bad luck?
If you asked a Rutgers fan, it’s karma. Despite being the nation’s unluckiest team statistically, the Buckeyes actually have one of the luckiest wins of the entire season.
Tanner Holden’s game-winning 3-pointer against the Scarlet Knights on Dec. 8 never should have counted, because Holden was out of bounds before grabbing Bruce Thornton’s outlet pass. As is the case in football, a player re-entering from out of bounds cannot be the first to touch a ball in play.
The Big Ten admitted to the officiating mistake after the fact, which is a rare occurrence in a conference where those mistakes aren’t uncommon.
It could also be the Hickey Curse. Though not necessarily well-known, it exists.
Though the past is littered with various examples of my curse, the most pertinent here is that I advised friends to place a futures bet on Ohio State to win the Big Ten prior to the Jan. 5 game against Purdue.
My logic was sound. The Buckeyes were 2-0, and a win over the Boilermakers would have provided an early 2-game lead in the conference race. Ohio State’s odds of +500 to win the B1G would move up dramatically if that happened.
And it almost did. The game was a back-and-forth classic. Neither team led by more than 5 points in the second half. Fletcher Loyer’s 3-pointer with 12 seconds to go provided Purdue with the 71-69 win.
Despite the loss, the outcome seemed to confirm that Ohio State was the team most likely to challenge Purdue for the Big Ten title. Instead, the Buckeyes have been in a tailspin ever since. And the same team that nearly beat first-place Purdue ended up losing at home to last-place Minnesota.
Each of Ohio State’s 6 Big Ten losses are by 3 possessions or less, which is the definition of close but not quite.
But is that really luck, or something else?
A chemistry lesson
There’s something to be said for familiarity.
Indiana was the preseason favorite to win the B1G largely for this reason. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in another KenPom stat — minutes continuity from last season. The key players have played together more than their counterparts. After a late December injury crisis, that strength is finally beginning to show again for Indiana.
Rutgers is 3rd in the B1G in minutes continuity, and that chemistry is showing for the league’s clear-cut No. 2 team. Northwestern, a surprising NCAA Tournament contender, is 4th in the B1G in the category. The Wildcats may not have the same talent level as most Big Ten teams, but they play together extremely well.
Chris Holtmann cobbled together a talented group of strangers this season. The Buckeyes are last in the Big Ten and 350th in the nation in minutes continuity. Of the 13 schools ranked behind Ohio State, 5 are new Division I programs and therefore don’t qualify for the category.
Ohio State’s best player is freshman Brice Sensabaugh. Freshman Bruce Thornton is the starting point guard. No. 2 scorer Justice Sueing is in his third year with the program, but missed last season due to injury. Key contributors Sean McNeil, Isaac Likekele and Tanner Holden all transferred in. Center Zed Key is the only returning starter, and he missed 2 games to injury during the current skid.
People often equate chemistry with players’ personalities meshing, but that’s not always the story. In many cases, the coach is responsible for creating the perfect alchemy by putting the right combination of players on the floor. In games with such narrow margins, even a few minutes with the wrong rotation in the lineup can be consequential.
Given the nature of his roster, it’s not surprising that it might take Holtmann until February to find his most optimal rotations. Unfortunately, the previous outcomes are leaving him without much more margin for error in putting it together. And it’s not about to get any easier.
Ohio State’s next game is at Indiana, which is rapidly heating up. It’s quite possible the Bucks will be 11-10 and 3-7 in the B1G at the exact midpoint of the schedule.
All the metrics indicate that Ohio State is good enough to dig out of that sizable hole and still reach the NCAA Tournament. But in order to do so, the Buckeyes need to start creating their own luck.