Since the loss to Michigan State almost two weeks ago, Buckeye fans have been in a sort of holding pattern regarding this year’s team. How good are they really? How far can this team go? Will they live up to the hype, or fall flat on their faces in the Sweet 16 again?

Most people have some pretty pessimistic answers to those questions – partly because most Buckeye fans are Football fans first, and reasonably react strongly to losses. It’s hard to think rationally about a loss when you’re used to a sport in which going less than undefeated is usually a recipe for not making the Championship Game.

Cheap shots at the BCS in a basketball article? check

I’ll grant you that the worst loss we’ve suffered all year was the 10 point home defeat to the Spartans. That loss was bad, but not necessarily bad bad. The Buckeyes learned a lot about themselves in that game, and we learned a lot about what it’s going to take this team to win basketball games.

Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll answer the question that everyone has been thinking, but no-one has had the courage to voice.

What exactly is it going to take for the Buckeyes to win the National Title this year?

Luckily there is a bit of a science to winning national titles in Basketball. Considering we have about 30 years of 64 team brackets to reference, and analyze, and disect, and rend, and…

You get the picture.

It turns out that there are many different metrics for championship winning basketball teams. In particular, I’m going to use one that was posted on Rivals a few years ago. What makes this one special? It’s a lot more quantitative than qualitative, and I just like it better. Maybe those two things are more related then I want to believe.

There are 13 different traits on this list. A team doesn’t have to have them all, there are always exceptions – for example UConn last year with 9 losses won despite winning squads typically suffering no more than 7 – but most championship teams have some significant set of these traits. So while missing on a couple is ok, we want to see a fair margin going the Buckeye’s way.

There are a few of these we won’t be able to answer until after the conference tournament starts, but we can at least analyze the rest and see how the Buckeyes look in comparison.

   1. At least two returning starters.

Easy as pie. The Buckeyes have returned two starters, plus their sixth man. Jared Sullinger and William Buford both started for the Buckeyes last season, and were key cogs to the offense. Add Aaron Craft to the list, considering he played starters minutes despite coming off the bench for Dallas Lauderdale, and you easily satisfy this requirement.

   2. Since 1985, every national champion has won at least 19 games the season before winning the title.

Done and done. The Buckeyes did that in their first 19 games last season, and ultimately put together 34 wins over the course of 37 games.

   3. Rank in the top 25 in scoring and/or field-goal percentage.

Ah, now we get to the brass statistical tacks. Here’s how the Buckeyes stack up.

  • Points: 2106, National Rank: 31
  • Points per Game: 75.2, National Rank: 36
  • Field Goal Percentage (effective): 52.7, National Rank: 49
  • Field Goal Percentage (true): 56.0, National Rank: 54

The Buckeyes as a team do not manage to break into the top 25 of either of those categories regardless of how you break down the analysis.  That said, they’re not so far outside in points and points per game that we couldn’t argue that this season isn’t a statistical anomaly – if defenses have been weaker than usual this season. This point might ultimately be a wash.

   4. Rank in the top 20 in scoring margin.

No sweat, here’s the top 5 teams in scoring margin this season (stats from TeamRankings.com).

Rank Team 2011 Last 3 Last 1 Home Away 2010
1 Kentucky +19.4 +10.0 +9.0 +22.4 +14.6 +11.4
2 Ohio State +17.8 +7.0 +16.0 +22.9 +6.9 +17.5
3 N Carolina +16.2 +14.3 +12.0 +22.7 +6.2 +8.7
4 Syracuse +15.8 +6.3 +8.0 +19.1 +10.3 +10.1
5 Missouri +15.0 +5.7 -10.0 +19.9 +7.5 +8.3

I’m pretty certain the Buckeyes are perfectly satisfying this requirement. That’s also a who’s-who of great teams this year (surprise surprise).

For you Michigan State fans out there, you’re sitting at #7, in case you were curious.

   5. Rank in the top 50 in field-goal percentage, while forcing opponents to shoot less than 42 percent.

We mentioned above that the Bucks are barely edging into the top 50 in field goal percentage. How are their opponents doing?

  • Field Goal Percentage (Effective): 45.5, NR: 47
  • Field Goal Percentage (True): 48.7, NR: 31

This is less likely waved away by statistical variation. The Bucks may be playing a particularly hard schedule (we’ll get to that in a minute), but it’s unlikely that it would be different enough to allow for a 6.7% increase in opponent true shooting percentage.

   6. Allow fewer than 71 points per game.

This one isn’t even close. The Buckeyes are forcing opponents to score only 57.4 points per game, that’s good for 8th best in the country.

   7. Shoot at least 34.4 percent from 3-point range.

Nope, the Buckeyes are shooting a measily 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. That ranks 216th in the nation.

Ok, maybe we can argue that this one is “in the noise” – that the difference is smaller than the relative uncertainty of the percentage. That’s hard to chew considering it’s a 1.1% difference but, without doing a rigorous analysis, 1% uncertainty is at least reasonable.

   8. Shoot at least 62.3 percent from the free-throw line.

Ready to be surprised? Before I looked at the stats, I thought this would be a close call, and not in the Buckeyes favor either. Turns out the Bucks are averaging 70.3% free throw shooting, which ranks only 126th in the nation.

   9. Have a post player who stands at least 6-8 and averages double figures in scoring.

His name is Jared Sullinger. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve been living under a rock the last year and a half. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game, amusingly the exact same average he had last year. He definitely satisfies the requirement.

Incidentally, is it a nice mossy rock? Comfortable? Good.

Things get a little more dicey from here. While many of these stats can change, the ones below are more likely to wildly vary before Selection Sunday.

   10. Seven or Fewer losses.

So far the Buckeyes have satisfied this, having only lost 5 games so far this season. With three games left, one against Michigan State in East Lansing, it’s probably not a stretch to expect 1 more loss in the regular season and possibly a loss in the Big Ten Tournament. That would put OSU precisely at seven losses.

   11. Finish first or second in conference or division.

It’s a close thing. They might tie for first or second, even if they lose to MSU, but they’re going to need some help.

Preferably better help than Northwestern and Minnesota have provided the last couple days. Thanks guys.

   12. Reach semifinals of conference tournament.

We’ll see. Considering the way they’ve played, this may be within their power – they only have to win one game, after all.

   13. RPI no worse than 15.

The Buckeyes currently have an impressive RPI of 7. Their strength of schedule currently sits at 14, and is expected to finish at 10. OSU has played an insanely difficult schedule, and come through it in pretty good form.

So, what does this all mean for Ohio State?

First, the good news. The Buckeyes satisfy a number of the traits shared by national champions. There are a lot of things the Bucks do that make them a potential contender for the national title.

One of the big ones is the way the Buckeyes play defense. Michael Rogner of Run the Floor did an excellent job of breaking down what make’s Ohio State’s defense so dangerous.

Let’s get the most important statistic out of the way. Ohio State’s defensive efficiency is a ridiculous 81.4, meaning they allow (adjusted for strength of opponent) a measly 0.814 points per possession, which is the best in the country. In fact it’s not even close. The number two team (Michigan State) allows 0.841, or 3.3% more. Considering Ohio State has played almost 1,850 possessions, that 3.3% works out to about 61 points better than the next closest defense. Since adjusted efficiency data became available (2002-03) this figure (81.4) is the lowest.

And it suddenly becomes obvious why the Michigan State at Ohio State game was such a tough defensive battle. Put two amazing defenses on the court together and you’re not going to score too many points. The reason Michigan State won that game, though, has to do with the bad news of all of this.

Ultimately, there are a number of things the Buckeyes don’t do right. You may have noticed the trend – OSU is great in the defensive catagories, but terrible in the offensive catagories. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched this team play. They play tough team defense, with a few boneheaded plays, but struggle to figure out an identity scoring the ball.

This raises the next question – is there a quick fix to this? Unfortunately the answer is probably no.

Many viewers would argue that the quick fix is to feed the ball to Sullinger more. Consider that he scored only 9 points against Illinois, and four of those came late in the game after his 4th foul. He also scored “only” 14 at Michigan and 17 against Michigan State. Clearly as the best player, and most consistent scorer, he should be getting more touches, right?

Wrong. Here’s the problem with the “always go to Sully” strategy. While it’s important that he continues to get touches in order to drive the offense, teams are fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses. Opponents have been double and triple teaming him in the paint this season, even more than they did last year. The goal is to limit his two strengths – scoring, and passing out to an open man.

This strategy has been even more effective this year with OSU’s poor shooting from outside. With the Buckeyes hitting only 33.3% of their shots, teams are more than happy to bring defenders from the outside down to give Sullinger trouble. The end result? The ball goes to Sullinger, and bad things happen. Michigan State was particularly effective with this, forcing Sully into 10 turnovers.

The solution to the problem is not necessarily simple, but it is important. The Buckeyes have to de-emphasize Sullinger. They need to make him a less critical part of the offense, not a more critical part. OSU has to find ways of scoring from outside the paint, or ways of opening up the lane to the dribble drive, so that the guards can become a bigger scoring threat.

By forcing the guards to become a bigger role, the Bucks will force defenders to leave the paint and give Sullinger more room to work. Unfortunately, this requires that Buford and at least one other perimeter shooter substantially improves their three point percentage. If Lenzelle Smith, Deshaun Thomas, or Aaron Craft can figure out their shots and start draining well timed triples, Sullinger’s life will become a lot easier. If they can’t, life will only become more difficult.

One man does not a team make, and we’re seeing the results of having only one true consistent scoring threat, and only one effective means of scoring. Someone has to step up in the scoring during these last three regular season games. At the very least it will help Sullinger out and prevent defenders from collapsing into the paint so readily, enabling the big man to do his thing.

Ultimately, the Buckeyes need hard work, and a little bit of luck, to make a deep run in the big dance this year. Their defense is stupendous, but it will only take them so far if the offense doesn’t turn around and help out.