Almost every question posed to Chris Holtmann, C.J. Jackson and Duane Washington Jr. was some variation of the same theme.
And again, the answers were either difficult to come by or simply not there. Friday night against No. 19 Maryland, Ohio State again found itself trying to explain away a disappointing loss. For the fourth straight time, the Buckeyes couldn’t find the necessary defensive intensity or make nearly enough shots to force their opponent to change their defensive plans.
This time, it was a 75-61 loss to the Terrapins. It came on the heels of last Saturday’s 72-62 loss at Iowa, a 64-61 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 9 and an 86-77 home loss to Michigan State on Jan. 5. The Buckeyes haven’t won since the calendar flipped to 2019, and it’s clearly weighing on them.
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Jackson, a senior guard, said the problem was a lack of defensive tenacity that allowed Maryland to shoot 58.1 percent for the game and 64.7 percent from three. The Buckeyes “were just going through the motions,” he said, and not guarding with a purpose. So on the heels of three straight conference losses, it begged the question: why?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
It was a familiar response. Thursday afternoon, graduate transfer guard Keyshawn Woods, locked in his own personal slump, was asked why the Buckeyes seemed to be playing differently than they were in jumping out to a 12-1 start for the season.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve just got to find our rhythm again. Once we find our rhythm again, get to really executing on the offensive end and really getting up into guys on defense and really playing defense the way we know how to play defense, I think everything will be fine. It’s on us. Nothing the coaches can do. It’s really on us as players.”
Holtmann has consistently deflected the fault back on himself and his coaching staff. When the Buckeyes turn the ball over too much, as they did a season-high 21 times at Iowa, he said it was in part because the staff didn’t properly put the players in position to be successful. When they lost at Rutgers, he said it was partially because the coaching staff didn’t do a good enough job of preparing the players for the physicality the Scarlet Knights would bring.
The task now is finding a way out of this downward spiral. Nothing gets easier: Purdue comes to Value City Arena on Wednesday before the Buckeyes go to Nebraska next Saturday and then to Michigan on Jan. 29.
“I think it’s a challenge,” Holtmann said. “It’s not for the faint of heart or weak-minded people. I think we’ve got a tough stretch here. We’ve got to find a way to dig our way out. We just have got to all accept responsibility and try to move better and play better.”
There will be more on this in Sunday’s Dispatch, but it’s becoming more and more glaring that there is a script out there for defending the Buckeyes and it starts with negating Kaleb Wesson. The big man scored 25 points against the Spartans and 18 at Rutgers, but had only two at Iowa and finished with 11 against the Terrapins.
In his last two games, Wesson has taken five and seven shots, respectively. Holtmann said the book is out on how to stop Ohio State, and Maryland was well-read on the topic as it packed the paint and made it a herculean task to try and force the ball inside to Wesson.
Nobody has played consistently well enough or shot a high enough percentage to force teams to change their minds.
“We have to make plays, because I think it’s frustrating,” Holtmann said of trying to get Wesson the ball. “I think our guys recognize that and we’re trying to give our guys some freedom so that could potentially open up things, but we just have not been able to have enough consistency on that end where the paint has opened up enough.”
Some of those problems were negated during the non-conference when the Buckeyes had obvious size advantages. Those haven’t been present in the Big Ten, but Jackson said that’s not a surprise.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” he said. “We signed up for it ourselves. When we signed the paper to come here we understood we were going to play against the best night in and night out, and play against teams that have goals to make the NCAA Tournament. These teams are good and they come in prepared. When we don’t come in and play our absolute best, we’ll get exposed.”
There were two big moments where the Terrapins quickly answered an Ohio State challenge that felt decisive to me.
The first came at the end of the first half. Maryland had led 38-30, but an 8-4 run by the Buckeyes in the final moments made it a 42-38 game when Maryland called timeout with 25.1 seconds left. Ohio State came out in a zone defense, but Anthony Cowan got around his man, gained the baseline from the left wing and fired a pass to the right corner and a wide-open Aaron Wiggins.
Naturally, he buried the three-pointer at the buzzer to make it a seven-point lead.
“We just fell asleep for a second as a whole defense,” Jackson said. “We switched to zone and for a split-second, once you fall asleep on a team like that, they’ve got shooters everywhere and guys who are already comfortable because of our lack of presence. Obviously he knocked it down, wide-open shot.”
And yet, the Buckeyes opened the second half with a 6-0 spurt keyed by three straight Maryland turnovers. Luther Muhammad drew a charge and Jackson came up with consecutive steals, making it a 45-44 Terrapins lead when they called timeout with 18:20 remaining.
On the next possession, Darryl Morsell buried a wide-open three-pointer to push it back to a four-point lead. It started a 10-0 run, and Ohio State would get no closer than six points the rest of the way.
“We know what’s going to happen: teams make runs, teams make shots,” Washington said, “so at that point it is a little demoralizing but we’re trying to push for the next play because we can make a three right back and pretend like it never happened. You’ve just got to keep pushing, analyze, learn and forget and move on.”
If there was a positive to come from the game, it was that Washington set a new conference-high scoring mark with 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Washington was 3 of 7 (42.9 percent) from three, and his teammates were a combined 3 for 19 (15.8 percent).
“Yeah, I thought he was aggressive,” Holtmann said. “There were a couple shots I didn’t love but he was really aggressive. It was good to see him get to the line. That’s one of the things we’re really struggling with right now is not getting to the free-throw line enough. He had some defensive lapses but I thought he rebounded the ball and scored it.”
Washington tied Wesson with a team-high six rebounds.
“I’m always confident,” he said. “Whether I’m 0 for 10 or 10 for 10 I’m going to go into every single game with the same mind-set and make the right play. Hopefully the shots I take, I can make them every game.”
Jackson, too, looked more like himself after Holtmann benched him for the start of the Iowa game. He finished with four steals to go with his team-high 15 points, although it took 15 shots to get there.
“I thought he was OK,” Holtmann said. “I thought he did some really good things. He had four steals. I thought he was our most active perimeter player. I thought he did a good job on Cowan, which I was really pleased to say. I think it was in some ways a real step forward. He probably didn’t shoot it as well as he would’ve liked to, and I’m frustrated with a couple of his turnovers, but I thought he played in a lot of ways like we saw him play last year in terms of his activity on the defensive end.”
“What concerned me is they’re extremely well-coached and they’re extremely well-coached defensively. That concerns you on the road. They can play all kinds of different lineups. They can go big, they can go small, they have a lot of really good players. I was a nervous wreck all day but my kids played really well tonight.” – Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, on what concerned him about the Buckeyes