IOWA CITY, Iowa — Even when things were going well for Ohio State on the scoreboard, the court was telling a different story.
At halftime Saturday afternoon inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the No. 16 Buckeyes had somehow staked themselves to a 26-24 lead despite committing 11 turnovers and getting two points from leading scorer Kaleb Wesson. Coach Chris Holtmann had shaken up his starting lineup and drastically changed his substitution patterns, allowing all 10 recruited scholarship players to play at least five minutes during the first half, and players on both sides were missing open shots — sometimes in horrendously spectacular ways.
To be blunt, it wasn’t a thing of beauty. And yet, Ohio State still led. Until it didn’t. That would take not even three minutes into the second half as Iowa tied the game at 28, again at 30 and took a 32-30 lead with 17:02 to play on a Luka Garza layup. That started a 7-0 run for Garza, and Ohio State never got closer than four again as the deficit grew as high as 15 points.
Video! Thirty-eight seconds of the #Buckeyes bigs working on post moves to The Imperial March. pic.twitter.com/K5rMN94PUM
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It’s difficult to separate this loss from the two that proceeded it, in part because there is definitely a hard-to-find common thread. Ohio State led late against Michigan State one Saturday prior only to falter late, and then went to Rutgers and took a three-point loss to a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder Wednesday night. In those games, the Buckeyes were at least in positions to secure wins in the final moments.
This one wasn’t like that at all, even if some of the reasons for the loss were similar. Since taking over at Ohio State, Holtmann’s teams have been known to play hard and play smart even if they might be physically or offensively limited.
Those givens seem more up for debate as this losing streak has stretched to three games.
“I thought we played harder today,” Holtmann said after the 72-62 loss. “I’ll have to look at the film on that. I thought we played harder today, but not nearly smart enough. That’s what I’m most disappointed in myself with is we did not play smart enough. We have for most of the year. We didn’t today.”
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Senior C.J. Jackson, who had started the last 39 straight games for the Buckeyes, was benched in favor of a lineup featuring Luther Muhammad, Keyshawn Woods, Andre Wesson, Kyle Young and Kaleb Wesson. He spent much of postgame blaming himself for a lack of leadership, be it in practice, games or even the weight room. Look for more on Jackson in Monday’s paper and on BuckeyeXtra.com.
Andre Wesson likewise blamed himself for not stepping up on the leadership front but said he’s not sure what is ailing the team’s overall play right now.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” he said. “A big thing is leadership and that falls on me too. I’m an older guy on the team. We need better leadership. That’s from me, him (C.J.), all the other older guys. We need better leadership.”
Both players also said they believe better days are still on the horizon for the Buckeyes.
“I know we have to get better, a lot better, and I know good times will come, but we’ve got a lot of talent in the locker room and we’ll be fine,” Jackson said. “We just have to get better pretty fast.”
It’ll take some time to dig into just how varied Holtmann’s lineups were in this game, but there are some significant numbers that immediately jump out.
First, the starting lineup had only appeared in two games together this season entering the game, totaling 2:43, scoring six points and allowing six. They didn’t spend much time together, though, when Kaleb Wesson picked up two fouls in the first 156 seconds and had to sit for an extended period of time.
It set off some atypically long stretches of playing time for several players. In particular, freshmen Justin Ahrens and Jaedon LeDee saw their most significant playing time of the season.
Ahrens, who missed last game with the flu, had totaled seven minutes in the first two Big Ten games. He had not scored. Against Iowa, he swished a pair of three-pointers, was credited with his second career steal and played 10:37. His six points were a career high.
LeDee, meanwhile, was on the court for 18:18 and finished with six points and four rebounds, going 2 for 8 from the floor.
“I thought they had some good moments and some freshmen moments,” Holtmann said. “I thought it was a combination of both. Jae was active but I don’t think necessarily as efficient as we would’ve liked, but I thought he played really hard and gave us a live body, which is who he is.”
All 10 available recruited scholarship players played at least 13:34 and scored at least two points. LeDee and Ahrens were the only ones without a turnover.
“We’re all searching a little bit and trying to look for some life and energy from our bench,” Holtmann said. “I’ve been trying to give some guys an opportunity to see how effective they can be. Obviously it’s a difficult environment for that to happen.”
For his recent offensive struggles, Woods had compiled a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranked him 19th nationally. Against Iowa, though, he finished with no assists and three turnovers to go with his 1-for-5 shooting performance. In 17:52, the graduate transfer finished with two points and five rebounds.
Jackson, off the bench, was 3 of 7 from the floor for 10 points but had three assists and four turnovers. Those two senior ball-handlers combined for three assists and seven turnovers.
“It’s obviously at an important position there,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to find a way as coaches to get them out of that (rut). We’ve got to find a way to fight through it and get them out of that. That’s obviously, the way they’re feeling, the way they’re playing, we’ve got to do a better job as coaches to try and get them playing better. I thought C.J. had some good moments today.”
Since scoring 18 points against Illinois and declaring that he knew he needed to be an aggressive scorer in order for the Buckeyes to have their best chance to be successful, Woods has reached double figures once. That was in the follow-up game, when he had 13 against Bucknell. In his last six games, Woods is 12 for 35 (34.2 percent) from the floor and 3 for 15 (.200) from three.
No groove for Wesson
Negating many of these struggles has been the recent play of Kaleb Wesson, who has grown into an all-Big Ten candidate and Ohio State’s most reliable scorer.
Against the Hawkeyes, Wesson tied a season-low with only five shot attempts, and he made a season-low one of them. His two points were the fewest since he was a bit player in last year’s late-season wins against Purdue and South Dakota State due to size mismatches.
The Buckeyes were never able to effectively get him going against Iowa.
“I think they did a good job post-trapping,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to do a better job getting him into some position. The foul trouble hurt him, too.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said there are “a variety of things you can do” to take Wesson out of the game.
“You’ve got to go at them and you’ve got to make them defend,” he said. “You’ve got to run, make them run, and make them work. You’ve got to play them before he gets it. If you let them bury you deep and let him catch it, he’s virtually unstoppable. So we played him early and moved our feet, tried to get ball pressure so the passer doesn’t see you right away and can’t get it to him.
“He’s a guy that demands a lot of attention as you’re preparing to play them, for obvious reasons. So if you’re doing all of that stuff, all of the time, all throughout the course of the game, it worked today.”
Carter at Carver
Five-star guard DJ Carton, who has signed to play for Ohio State next season, made the drive from Bettendorf, Iowa, to watch the game with coach Curtis Clark. He got some high-fives and hugs from the Buckeyes staff and players in the tunnel outside the locker room, and it seemed to be a reminder that there is some high-level talent on the way for next season.
Holtmann said that’s not on his mind as he works with this year’s team.
“I don’t really look at it that way,” he said. “I love him, but I love our current guys. I believe in our current group and that’s our only focus right now. As coaches, our only focus is improving and growing and getting better. We anticipated some of these moments. Doesn’t make them any easier. We’ve got to figure out between now and our next game how to play smarter than we played today.”
Don’t Force it
Iowa made this game “Star Wars Day,” and celebrated accordingly throughout the day. Darth Vader and Stormtroopers roamed the concourse, posing for photos, and a pregame video played introducing the game as if it was a movie in the series.
The famous word scrawl from the movie intros described the Ohio State coach as “the merciless Buckeye Lord Holtmann” and the Iowa coach as “Jedi Master McCaffery.”
I resisted the urge to write this into my story in some way, mostly because I couldn’t find a subtle way to do so. However, I will share with you this rejected beginning to my game recap:
“Ohio State has found the adversity coach Chris Holtmann has been warning about all season.
“Saturday afternoon, on what was Star Wars day inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, they found it like the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star found the proton torpedoes shot from Luke Skywalker’s X-wing.”
I stopped myself there and doubled my efforts.