The opening minutes of Ohio State’s 80-56 win over No. 16 Maryland on Thursday night did not portend entertaining offensive basketball. Both teams clanked shots. The ball stuck, or was pounded into the ground. Turnovers outnumbered highlights. With 12 minutes remaining in the first half, the Buckeyes and Terrapins had combined for 13 points.
The one upshot for fans who tuned in to the game on ESPN? The opportunity to watch one of the most electrifying offensive talents in the country. Almost single-handedly, D’Angelo Russell turned a dull, low-scoring affair into his personal showcase.
The freshman dished to open teammates, broke down defenders off the dribble, split double teams, knocked down contested shots to lead Ohio State to a comfortable victory at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Singling out one highlight is difficult, but the behind-the-back dribble, pull-up three embedded below should be watched on loop.
Most observers won’t confuse this win for a breakout performance; Russell had already established himself as one of the nation’s top freshmen, with a collection of highlights having already made the rounds on the Internet. Entering Thursday the Louisville, Ky., native ranked second in the Big Ten with 19.4 points per game and third with 5.1 assists per game.
Yet rattling off Russell’s statistics feels like a disservice because the most enjoyable part about his game is the smoothness with which he operates on the offensive end. His arsenal includes deft, space-creating dribbles, sudden pull-up jumpers, slick passes in traffic and excellent court vision.
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Russell stole the show on Thursday against the Terrapins by scoring 18 points on 6-of-12 from the field, matching his season-high of 14 rebounds, recording two steals and handing out six helpers with zero turnovers. In some ways though, Ohio State may be more encouraged by the production it received from a pair of underclassmen. After all, Russell's scintillating performance has been par for the course for the sensational frosh.
Fellow freshman Jae’Sean Tate scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and pulled down eight rebounds, while sophomore Marc Loving knocked down all five of his three-point attempts and finished with 19 points. All told, the Buckeyes finished with 1.23 points per possession.
If Ohio State can continue to coax efficient offense from complementary threats like Tate and Loving, that should free up more space for Russell to score and distribute. The combination worked to great effect on Thursday against a team ranked second in adjusted points per possession allowed in conference, according to Kenpom.com, which suggests similar or better results against less heralded defenses.
More non-Russell production will also help the Buckeyes compensate on the occasions when opponents lock the star freshman down, or at least disrupt him to some extent. Ohio State already wields one of the most potent offenses in the league, but if Russell continues to improve and his teammates can fill in at the margins, perhaps this team should, at least temporarily, own the totally mythical title of "best team in the Big Ten not named 'Wisconsin.'"
The Buckeyes have slipped defensively from last season, but coach Thad Matta has recast his charges into a Russell-oriented offensive power. Ohio State’s offense opened Thursday ranked second in the Big Ten in adjusted offensive efficiency during conference play. Over the past two seasons, it finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in that category, though abetted by stingier defensive play.
The most encouraging part about Thursday’s win, which came on the heels of consecutive victories over Northwstern and Indiana, is that Ohio State should continue to stack Ws with relative ease well into February. The Buckeyes’ upcoming schedule: at Purdue, at Rutgers and home against Penn State. The slate toughens with a two-game road swing against the Michigan schools, but Ohio State looks capable of beating either of those teams.
In any case, the Buckeyes are trending upward after suffering two panic-inducing losses to Iowa and a road defeat to Indiana over their first six conference matchups. It will be interesting to watch Russell and the rest of Ohio State’s offense develop in the coming weeks as the Buckeyes push for a top two finish in the Big Ten.