Issued as a warning more than a year ago, one of coach Chris Holtmann’s primary concerns about his first Ohio State team has hung around this season.
Entering a game Thursday night at Value City Arena against Illinois, the Buckeyes are committing a league-high 14.2 turnovers per Big Ten men's basketball game. For the season, they rate No. 219 nationally in turnover percentage at 19.3 of possessions, according to KenPom.com.
Those numbers are comparable to the first 10 games under Holtmann, when the Buckeyes were No. 229 nationally with a turnover percentage of 20.2. That stat led Holtmann to tell reporters that he has “never seen teams have a real successful season being that high of a turnover percentage,” while joking that if it had stayed at that rate, he likely would have committed bodily injury to himself.
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That team got significantly better, finishing 84th nationally at 17.1 percent. This year’s team remains in the 200s despite a 16-7 record and a projected NCAA Tournament-worthy resume, but the need to improve remains real.
“I do think that catches up to you,” Holtmann said Wednesday. “I don’t think we’re ever going to be a team that necessarily is going to be top four or five in the league, but if we’re in the bottom I don’t think we’re going to have the kind of finish that we want.”
Making the issue more pressing is Thursday’s matchup. Illinois leads the Big Ten both by forcing 15.8 turnovers per game in conference play and by nabbing 8.3 steals. Only two teams have had single-digit turnovers against Illinois, and Ohio State committed 19 in a 10-point win at Chicago’s United Center in December.
That Illinois team wasn’t playing with the offensive confidence this team will bring to Value City Arena, and it’s a matchup that is concerning despite the Fighting Illini's poor record of 9-15. On Wednesday, freshman guard Luther Muhammad repeated the oft-discussed sprint punishments that the Buckeyes pay for careless turnovers in games.
The issue has gotten Ohio State’s attention, but the Buckeyes haven't turned things around. They have committed at least 15 turnovers in three of their past four games, with the lone outlier a six-turnover performance in a home win against Rutgers.
“I just think we have to be tough with the ball and not make careless passes,” Muhammad said. “I think they’re real similar to Penn State on defense: a lot of gambling. We’ve just got to execute. That’s about it.”
Last year’s team, sophomore center Kaleb Wesson said, improved in that area as the season went on because it had more established veteran players who had learned lessons through game experience.
This year, Holtmann pointed out, the Buckeyes don’t have a Jae’Sean Tate who, although occasionally turnover-prone, was physical with the ball and strong in the post as a de facto point guard. In contrast, senior point guard C.J. Jackson doesn’t have the same stature or physicality.
“Some of it is we do have some young guys that are trying to figure out what they can and can’t do, but a lot of it is just our older guys need to embrace it and make better decisions, and we coaches have to continue to think about what we can do to improve it,” Holtmann said. “We have to play better in that area.”