IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s been clear that something has been amiss with the Ohio State men’s basketball team since it bolted out to a 12-1 start to the season.
Saturday afternoon, with his back to a wall made of black, gold and white cinder blocks, senior guard C.J. Jackson laid the explanation at his own feet. Following a third straight loss in the span of eight days, and one that began with his first benching in more than a year, the Buckeyes captain said the team’s recent woes stem from a lack of leadership.
And according to Jackson, it starts with him.
“It starts in practice, not taking days off whether we’re in the weight room or film, just being focused for our time whenever we’re at the gym,” he said. “We’re not ever there long, so we have to really put in the time so when gameday comes it’s second nature, and that’s not been the case. I’ve not been practicing hard enough and I can’t really speak for anyone else, but that’s kind of led to our performance in the game, and mine especially.”
Each loss has been different, but they are connected. Against No. 8 Michigan State, the Buckeyes were neck-and-neck with the Spartans until the final three minutes. Four days later at Rutgers, they took their first true ugly loss in the Chris Holtmann era with a three-point defeat to a team that had beaten just one ranked Big Ten team during its five years in the conference. Against Iowa, Ohio State turned the ball over 21 times in a game in which Holtmann said he didn’t do a good enough job of preparing his players to make smarter decisions.
Asked where the team’s effort and energy levels have been lately, Jackson said, “Probably not enough where we need it to be, and that starts with me. I haven’t been playing hard enough, smart enough, (I’m) fouling too much personally and just not giving enough effort and directing the younger guys and being that leader they can depend on.”
Holtmann cautioned against Jackson putting too much on his own shoulders. The leadership for this group has always been a collective need, he said, noting that stepping into such roles is not something that several players are necessarily comfortable with. There’s not a Jae’Sean Tate on this team, a player to whom players naturally gravitate.
“C.J.’s a great kid,” Holtmann said. “He’s a tremendous kid. He doesn’t need to put all that on him. Other guys need to lead, but he knows why he came off the bench. I had that conversation with him, but I’ll keep that between us.”
Life gets no easier for the Buckeyes as the season resumes Friday with a home game against Maryland. At No. 21 nationally, the Terrapins are the lowest-ranked team according to KenPom.com among the next four opponents, a stretch that concludes at undefeated Michigan on Jan. 29.
They are significant challenges, but each could provide opportunity for players like Jackson to rewrite the trajectory of the season. Downbeat Saturday, Jackson said he’s capable of putting this team on his shoulders — with a little help.
“Yeah, I definitely think so,” he said. “If not, we’re going to keep losing. Something’s got to change.”