EVANSTON, Ill. – There wasn’t a whole lot else to say, and Keyshawn Woods knew it.
As a graduate transfer for Ohio State, Woods was staring into the face of the final regular-season game of his career and it was looming in concerning fashion. His decision to join the Buckeyes stemmed as much from a desire to be a crucial piece that would help them return to the NCAA Tournament, which would mark his first and only appearance in March Madness. And two games ago, after a rocky season both personally and collectively, that future seemed assured after a blowout win against Iowa.
Now everything has changed, and Woods knows it. It was evident in the tone of his voice, the lone media delegate sent to try and explain an ugly, 68-50 loss to Northwestern that delivered the biggest blow yet to the team’s flickering postseason hopes. On a night where almost nothing went right, Woods led the Buckeyes with 15 points and tied for the team lead with seven rebounds, often finding himself as the guy needing to take a tough shot with the shot clock dwindling and nothing else going.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
It was a challenging night for everyone. And standing just a few feet away from the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the Buckeyes never led against a team with a 10-game losing streak, Woods did his best. He made eye contact. He answered thoughtfully and, occasionally with brutal honesty.
And when it was over, Woods had to take roughly a dozen steps before he could reach the safe confines of Ohio State’s locker room. Woods picked up the pace with each step and, still in his jersey, clenched his scarlet warm-up jacket over his head as tightly as possible until he was out of sight.
His reaction said as much as anything either Woods or coach Chris Holtmann could offer on a night when the Buckeyes weren’t good enough offensively or defensively to secure a win that almost certainly would have made them a safe pick for the NCAA Tournament.
Having said that, here’s what happened on a forgettable, troubling night at Northwestern.
Brutal start dooms Buckeyes
Let’s get into the “what” before the “why” when it comes to the Ohio State offense. The numbers were ugly as they unfolded in real time, and they didn’t look any better in the black-and-white of the box score.
After a 35-point loss at Purdue on Saturday during which the Buckeyes shot 27.3 percent during the first half and 33.3 percent for the game, they came out against the Wildcats by missing their first 13 shots from the floor. It took nearly nine minutes before a C.J. Jackson layup ended the drought, but trailing 12-6 thanks to some foul shooting the Buckeyes had missed 14 of their first 15 shots (a 9.6 percent shooting mark).
It would bottom out at 2 for 21 (9.5 percent) as Northwestern opened a 19-10 lead. At the half, Ohio State was 4 for 28 (14.3 percent) from the field and only in the game because it had gone 8 for 12 from the free-throw line.
“Mainly just making sure we take a good shot each time,” Woods said when asked what is happening with the offense. “Sometimes we’ve got to go with pace and sometimes we take bad shots with the shot clock going down, but the more pace we have early in the shot clock, the more things will open up like they did in the second half. We know we’re missing our key piece when it comes to our offense, but we’ve got to figure it out. We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to figure out a way to score the ball and play defense.”
More on that key piece – sophomore center Kaleb Wesson – in a bit. In their first three halves without him, the Buckeyes shot 26.3 percent (20 for 76) from the floor and 9.7 percent (3 for 31) from three while being outscored 114-68. During the first half, one fan from the upper section of the arena within close proximity to the Ohio State bench clearly yelled to Wesson: “This is your fault, Kaleb. They have two points because of you.”
The second half was a little better. Ohio State was 13 for 36 (36.1 percent) from the field after halftime and scored 33 points, but Northwestern scored 40 points and never led by fewer than five points.
The Buckeyes needed more. They needed more from a lot of guys. Why didn’t that happen? A few reasons.
Trickle-down effect taking hold
Wesson’s ongoing suspension is a major factor as to why Ohio State’s offense has regressed significantly during the last week, but it’s not the only one.
Let’s start in the backcourt. Senior guard C.J. Jackson, the team’s second-leading scorer all season, scored 17 points in a loss to Illinois and has since totaled 30 in his last five games. He missed the game at Maryland with a shoulder injury and also has been dealing with an ankle injury suffered at Michigan State, one game after the Illinois loss.
“He’s still hobbled by some injuries and some bumps and bruises,” Holtmann said of Jackson. “He’s not been able to really do a whole lot. He’s been a little bit banged up. He’s got to give us more, too.”
For that combination of reasons, Jackson did not start against Northwestern. He finished with nine points, his biggest scoring output since Illinois, but was 4 for 11 from the field. In his last five games, Jackson is shooting 28.6 percent (12 for 42) from the floor and 27.3 percent (6 for 22) from three.
So Jackson is struggling and dealing with injury. Then, factor in Wesson’s ongoing suspension, robbing the team of its leading scorer and rebounder. His absence has forced Holtmann to further shuffle his lineup, a tall task with his primary ball-handler already clearly struggling.
Here’s where things get even trickier. Sophomore Kyle Young, a power forward who has had to masquerade as a center, has been battling a stress fracture to his lower right leg that cost him four games in the middle of the season. On top of that, Holtmann said young sprained his ankle during the limited time he’s been able to practice this week.
“He sprained the same ankle (as the leg where he suffered the fracture) yesterday, so he was giving us as much as he could on one foot,” Holtmann said.
Through it all, the Buckeyes heave leaned heavily on Wesson’s older brother, Andre, an undersized post player who is more suited to playing on the perimeter than logging heavy post minutes. He played all but six seconds of the Iowa win two games ago and has taken the team lead in most minutes logged this season, many of them recently while playing against bigger, stronger players.
Wednesday night, he was 0 for 8 from the floor. Six of his shots were three-pointers, and he had just one rebound. His two points tied a season low. Two of his shots were airballs, and another was forcefully rejected from the left block.
When presented with the opinion that he looked gassed during the game, Holtmann agreed.
“He did look gassed,” Holtmann said. “I think the season has worn on him a little bit, as much as we’ve had to rely on him. He did look tired. I noticed the same thing. Part of that is he’s battling (Dererk) Pardon for a lot of the game, and that can wear on you.”
Add it all up, and you’ve got multiple guys playing roles they’re not accustomed to on a roster Holtmann is still trying to build while navigating the morass of the mass transfers that marred the final seasons of the Thad Matta era.
“We have a number of guys playing out of position,” he said. “A number of guys. I mean, a number of guys. We had some guys playing out of position before, and now they’re really playing out of position. At times we’re literally playing five guards. It’s hard to do that against some teams, certainly a team like this that was clearly going to throw it into him. We tried to post trap and tried to press and none of it was very effective.”
Pardon goes off
Pardon, a Cleveland native, has put up solid numbers during his Northwestern career but hadn’t done much against his home-state team until Wednesday night.
Entering this game, Pardon was 12 for 31 (38.7 percent) from the field and averaged 5.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in five games against the Buckeyes. His career highs had been nine points and 10 rebounds, respectively, in separate games.
He had two points at the half, but against the depleted Ohio State frontcourt Pardon scored 18 second-half points and added 13 rebounds for his 17th career double-double.
“We just had no answer for him,” Holtmann said. “Tough to zone them because of how they shoot it. They also throw it inside against the zone, but we just had no answer.”
Life on the bubble
Ohio State’s schedule provides another big chance for a resume-boosting win Sunday when No. 21 Wisconsin comes to Value City Arena for the final regular-season game of the year.
What could be riding on the result of the game wasn’t lost on Woods.
“We’ve got opportunity,” he said. “You’ve got a top-25 team coming in on Sunday and then the (Big Ten) tournament. We needed this win, but we still positioned ourselves enough to where if we do what we’ve got to do, win Sunday, win in the tournament, the (decision) will be up to them.”
Given what has transpired in the last two games, though, and with Kaleb Wesson again expected to sit out, what gives Woods belief that the Buckeyes can actually take advantage of the opportunity?
“It’s a long season,” he said. “We’re a confident team. We want it bad. Like, we want it, we’ve just got to show the rest of the world. We know what we’re capable of. We know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve just got to bring it out.”
Now that the tenor of the season has changed since the Iowa game, Holtmann was asked if he’s had to alter his message or approach to games knowing what needs to happen to feel safe about reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“Guys know,” he said. “Guys know we’ve got to win a game. Guys know where we’re at and what we’ve got to do is find a way to play better. They’re well aware of it. We’re all well aware of it. You can’t be not well aware of it. Who knows what a loss on the road does. There’s so much left to be played with these remaining few days. To be honest with you, that can’t be our focus a whole lot right now. We’ve just got to find a way to play better.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to get into that tournament. If it’s taking charges, whatever, I just want to get to the tournament. So whatever we’ve got to do from this point, I’m trying to give it my all so I can get there.” – Woods, on the NCAA Tournament