Why Ohio State Could Be Dangerous in the NCAA Tournament

Ohio State might not end up with a strong seed, but they could make a lot of noise in the tournament.

You could be excused for overlooking Ohio State heading into March Madness.

The 23-9 Buckeyes finished sixth in the Big Ten, are 42nd in the RPI, and 1-6 against the RPI Top 50.

Based on this, the selection committee will almost surely not think all that highly about them.

They would be wrong.

We currently have Ohio State as a 12 seed, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm both project the committee will give the Buckeyes an 8 seed. If all of this is true, Ohio State will be one of the more underseeded teams this March.

Based on our own rankings, Ohio State should realistically be a 4 seed, as we have them ranked 14th in the country in nERD, which measures the number of points you'd expect a team to win by against an average team on a neutral court. We aren't alone, either, as Jeff Sagarin’s pure point rating has Ohio State 10th in the country, ESPN’s BPI has them 16th and KenPom has Ohio State ranked 18th.

So why is their RPI ranking so much lower?

RPI only has three inputs: a team's win-loss record, its opponents' winning percentage, and its opponents' opponents' winning percentage. More sophisticated ratings, like ours, Sagarin’s, Pomeroy’s and the BPI, incorporate a number of different factors, including -- crucially -- scoring margin.

For the RPI, though, the final score is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if a team loses by 2 or 20 -- the RPI will judge that game the same way.

As Ken Pomeroy and John Hollinger note, removing this context limits how accurately the RPI can rank teams and means the model lacks predictive strength.

The RPI also does a great disservice to teams like Ohio State, who have been dominant in the majority of their wins, and competitive in nearly all of their losses.

19 of their 23 wins have been by double digits, while their regular season finale against Wisconsin was their only loss by more than nine points.

In conference play, the Buckeyes have outscored their opponents by eight points per 100 possessions, behind only Wisconsin, according to John Gasaway.

Given that the traditional ways of looking at team strength underrate Ohio State, let’s take a closer look at what makes it so good.

Efficient Offense

Led by guard D’Angelo Russell, who is having a historically good year for a freshman, Ohio State has our 15th-ranked offense, ranking in the 97th percentile in offensive efficiency.

The Buckeyes are 19th in the nation in effective field goal percentage (54.8%), thanks in large part to efficiency near the rim. Ohio State’s 68.1% field goal percentage at the rim is seventh in the nation, according to Hoop-Math.

The fast break has also been a key part of their attack, as 29.6% of their field goals have come in transition, which is the fifth-highest frequency in the country. It’s a good thing, too, as they are posting an effective field goal percentage of 60% on these shots.

Ohio States supplements its shot-making with ball security (46th nationally in turnover rate) and above-average rebounding (76th in offensive rebound rate).

The only area where the Buckeyes have truly struggled on offense is the free throw line. They don’t get there frequently, ranking 249th in free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and when they do get to the line, they are only shooting 67.3% (which also ranks 249th).

Individually, Russell has been the catalyst for Ohio State's offensive success, averaging over 19 points and five assists per game.

He's fifth in the Big Ten in eFG% (.554), and fourth in Usage Rate (29.9%). His Offensive Rating of 118.3 is seventh in the conference, and third (behind only Frank Kaminsky and Melo Trimble) among players with a Usage Percentage of 25% or greater.

Russell is joined by point guard Shannon Scott (who leads the Big Ten in both assists per game [5.8] and assist percentage [33.5]), Amir Williams (.654 eFG%, 10.7 offensive rebound rate), and Marc Loving (Big Ten-leading 47.3% three-point shooting percentage).

Aggressive Defense

Ohio State is 19th in our defensive efficiency rankings, and is 22nd in the country in turnovers forced per possession. The Buckeyes are 21st nationally in steal percentage, led by their guards. Scott is fourth in the conference in steal percentage and Russell is eighth.

They are also 11th in the country in block percentage, thanks to Williams, who has a 10.3% block rate (tied for second in the Big Ten).

Not only have they been able to force turnovers and block shots at a high rate, they have been able to do so without fouling, as they rank 17th in free throw attempts per field goal attempt.

The Buckeyes have had an above average field goal defense, ranking 58th in effective field goal percentage, but while they are also 58th in three-point percentage allowed (37.1%), they allow three-pointers at a high rate. 38.3% of their field goals allowed have been from behind the arc, which is 296th in the nation.

Rebounding, though, has been the defense’s biggest achilles heel, as the Buckeyes defense has grabbed 31.4% of all available rebounds, which is 194th nationally.

Still, they rank in the 94th percentile in overall defensive efficiency.

This strength on both ends of the floor will make Ohio State much more dangerous than your typical lower seed in the tournament.

You’ve been warned.