Cincinnati and Ohio State renewed a dormant in-state rivalry on Wednesday night with the Buckeyes claiming the 64-56 win in the season opener for both teams. The all-Ohio matchup marked the first time these two programs played in the regular season since 1920 as the Bearcats opened their newly-renovated Fifth Third Arena with a rock fight.
Here are three takeaways from this one.
1. Balance is the key for Ohio State’s offense
Last season saw Ohio State rely heavily on Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop. One of the breakout performers in all of college hoops a year ago, Bates-Diop moved on to the NBA after putting up 19.8 points per game.
So, for this season, Ohio State has to reconfigure its offense by coming with a balanced approach. That seemed to work well enough for the Buckeyes against Cincinnati on Wednesday. Working the ball inside to sophomore Kaleb Wesson (15 points, seven rebounds) and letting him go to work, the 6-foot-9 wide-bodied big man patiently went to work, or kicked the ball out to open cutters or shooters. At 270 pounds, Wesson is a tough one-on-one cover for nearly anyone in college basketball on the interior and his passing ability is solid.
That led to a lot of decent looks for Ohio State’s offense as four players finished in double-figures. Senior point guard C.J. Jackson (13 points) didn’t have his finest game on offense, but he made some key drives down the stretch to force pressure on an aggressive Cincinnati defense — including a dagger lay-up to make it a six-point game with 30 seconds left. Freshman Luther Muhammad, known more for his on-ball defensive prowess than his offense, chipped in 11 points as he made some tough buckets in the second half. And sophomore forward Kyle Young played a key glue-guy role as his ability to hit the offensive glass, or get fouled, led to him finishing with 10 points.
Ohio State doesn’t have a go-to player. Nobody on this roster is going to erupt for huge scoring games. But as long as the Buckeyes understand that the offense needs to run through Wesson on the inside then they have a lot of dangerous complementary pieces who can make opposing defenses pay.
2. Cincinnati desperately needs to find an offensive identity
The backbone of Cincinnati’s program identity has always been rugged defense and physicality. This season will be no different. But the reason Cincinnati was able to elevate into a 30-win team and a No. 2 seed in last season’s NCAA tournament was an improved offense with plenty of capable options.
Now that Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington have all moved on, however, the Cincinnati offense desperately needs to find a new identity. Or, at the very least, a consistent spark plug who can become a go-to player at the end of the shot clock.
The first half saw Cincinnati shoot an ugly 4-for-29 (13 percent) from the field and 2-for-12 (16 percent) from three-point range as a disjointed half-court offense didn’t show any semblance of continuity. While Cincinnati could go inside-out to Clark and Washington a season ago, they didn’t work nearly hard enough to work the ball inside to new frontcourt starters Nysier Brooks (seven points) and Tre Scott (eight points).
Second-half offense wasn’t much better for the Bearcats, as they continually abandoned post touches in favor of long, contested jumpers and early-shot-clock threes. Much of this falls on a veteran Cincinnati backcourt that played inexcusably bad. Senior guards Justin Jenifer (five points, five assists) and Cane Broome (five points) combined to shoot 3-for-18 from the floor on Wednesday night as neither guard did an effective job of scoring or running an offense.
A solid complimentary double-figure scorer a season ago, junior wing Jarron Cumberland (22 points, all in the second half) struggled to create his own offense until a run in the second half as he was harassed by Buckeye defenders. Battling foul trouble in the first half that might have thrown him off, Cumberland finally started to get hot towards the end of the game when he was allowed to be the natural catch-and-shoot option that he needs to be. Cumberland’s not a guy who can blow by defenders by putting it on the floor. He ideally needs a setup guy to be at his best.
Cincinnati showed that its defense and toughness is still there. But the team’s offense is still a gigantic work-in-progress. Improvement starts with the upperclass perimeter group that needs to force the ball inside more often to help establish more rhythm in the half-court offense. That should lead to a lot more consistent open looks for Cumberland on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
3. Ohio State will be an intriguing team in a wide-open Big Ten
The Big Ten race appears to be wide open this season as there isn’t a perceived dominant team heading into 2018-19. Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue all have a chance to be consistent top-25 teams. None of them are overwhelming on paper though. Second-tier Big Ten teams (based on preseason hype) like Maryland, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State all have major question marks heading into the season.
At least we now know that Ohio State won’t be an easy out for any team in the Big Ten this season.
The Buckeyes just scored the early-season’s most impressive true road victory by going into a hostile in-state environment and taking Cincinnati’s best punch when the Bearcats rallied late in the second half. This is the type of early-season road win that should give Ohio State a ton of confidence, as they’re a young team playing with a lot of new pieces.
While Ohio State will still have plenty of ups-and-downs like any young team, it remains a fact that Chris Holtmann is one of the very best coaches in college basketball. This Buckeye team should be prepared to play on most nights this season. It’ll be fascinating to see what their eventual ceiling might be once they start to get comfortable playing with each other.