I’m trying really, really hard to temper my expectations for Chris Holtmann’s first season as coach of the Ohio State basketball team. It’s clear that he doesn’t have all of the pieces in place that he’d like, and the Buckeyes are capable of going from world-beaters one minute to hot garbage the next. But then they boatrace a good Wisconsin team and complete an epic comeback against Michigan, and all of a sudden I’m trying to convince myself that they’ve got a Sweet Sixteen in their future.
That’s dumb, and there are far better observers of the game of basketball than I, but as I was watching Ohio State whip the hell out of a couple of Big Ten opponents, I was struck by one thing that kept popping up in really crucial moments: Ohio State has become (mainly thanks to the likes of Keita Bates-Diop), an impressive rebounding team. The Buckeyes are 8-3 on the season so far, but in those 11 games they have only been out-rebounded once against (surprise) Gonzaga, but even then it was merely a 31-35 split. Currently they’re 28th in the country in total rebounds, a mark they haven’t reached in five seasons.
And that’s where I start to put on my tinfoil hat.
Correlation does not imply causation, I tell myself as I look at rebounding stats from the past ten seasons. Just because Ohio State under Thad Matta was enormously successful when they were an excellent rebounding team, and just because the only players to average more than nine rebounds per game in the last ten seasons of men’s basketball were Evan Spencer in 2009-10 (when Ohio State won 29 games), Jared Sullinger in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (when Ohio State won 34 and 31 games, respectively), and uh… Trevor Thompson, last season.
Okay that last one is weird, but Keita Bates-Diop is on course for joining that group this season, an auspicious sign for a team that is still trying to develop an identity beyond “works their asses off.” That fact alone doesn’t mean that we’re about to see an epic March tournament run (or hell, appearance), but it does mean that on a game to game basis, Ohio State is one hot hand away from shooting their way into a lead.
In a larger sense though, this matters for Ohio State because their willingness to slam the boards will help keep them in games where they will face a talent disparity, something that they’ll encounter a lot in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes lost against Gonzaga earlier this season, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort on either end of the court. Even in the 14 point loss against Clemson, they tied the Tigers in rebounds and out-rebounded them 10-3 with offensive boards.
Eventually the tide will turn in big time games like those, and Holtmann’s Buckeyes will start to win more of them than they lose. And it’ll be because their rebounding kept them in it.