Whether Ohio State has deserved the foul trouble it has battled during the last two games is a matter of debate. What is not in question, though, is that a two-game losing streak and the first two games of at least 20 team fouls for the Buckeyes are directly related.

In an 86-77 loss at No. 21 Maryland on Feb. 11, Trevor Thompson and Jae’Sean Tate both fouled out as the Buckeyes were whistled for 25 team fouls. Asked for his thoughts on the officials during that game, Ohio State coach Thad Matta bit his tongue and replied, “They were there.”

They followed that up three days later by committing 21 team fouls in a 74-66 loss at Michigan State that dropped them to 5-9 in Big Ten play. Now Ohio State enters this evening’s home game against Nebraska needing a win to start playing itself out of the first day of the Big Ten tournament. If that’s going to happen, the Buckeyes’ starters are going to have to stop relegating themselves to the bench with early foul trouble.

“There are some that are just not smart fouls,” Matta said Friday. “When you ask them, ‘Why did you do this?’ it’s like, ‘Ah, I don’t know.’ ”

Thompson battled foul trouble last season and struggled to not let getting one foul affect his mental approach. He had shown marked improvement this season, prompting Minnesota coach Richard Pitino to call Thompson “probably the most improved player in the conference” after he had 19 points and 10 rebounds in a Jan. 25 home win against the Golden Gophers. Since then, however, Thompson has fouled out of three of Ohio State’s six games and averaged only 9.0 points per game.

In between the Maryland and Michigan State games, Thompson said, “I need to stop making bonehead fouls that are preventable, which comes from grabbing a guy when I’m tired or jumping over a guy’s back. I have to play smart for this team and not get myself in foul trouble.”

Matta echoed that thought Friday and said a lengthy film session with Thompson had helped hammer those points home.

Tate was limited to a Big Ten-low 22 minutes against the Spartans and scored seven points, only the third time this season he failed to reach double figures. He finished with four fouls. Marc Loving topped 20 points in consecutive games for the first time all season, but with Tate and Thompson in foul trouble, it wasn’t enough.

Having his two primary post players limited by foul trouble isn’t ideal, Matta said, but they’re not the only culprits.

“Those two (Tate and Thompson) have probably been the biggest recipients, but Marc’s first foul was on an inbounds play and he went the wrong way,” Matta said. “We had just covered that, and he grabs the guy. You can’t commit that foul. We knew the play. We had covered it, and we do it the wrong way. Those are the moments where we’ve got to get smarter.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy