The fall has been as sudden as it has been mystifying.
In a convincing win Dec. 21 against No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas, No. 5 Ohio State traded blows, consistently made winning plays and headed home for the holidays firmly cemented as among the nation's elite teams with an 11-1 record after a 71-65 win.
Now, as the Buckeyes head to Northwestern for a game Sunday, they do so as one of seven teams to be ranked as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press poll only to fall outside of the rankings the same season. They've lost six of their last seven games, two of which came at Value City Arena, and are starting to flirt with the possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
The Buckeyes of recent past have looked little like the team that rattled off blowout wins against Villanova, North Carolina and Penn State in addition to noteworthy wins against Cincinnati and Kentucky. To former team captain Tony White, who played for the Buckeyes from 1986 to '89, it's been a jarring about-face.
“This is not the same team,” he said last week. “It isn't. Same guys, same uniforms, same coaches, but it's not the same team. They are not playing the game anything like the team that was in those uniforms and in those seats a month and a half ago. It's a completely different basketball team.
“It boggles your mind how a team that has the talent to be one game away from being the No. 1 team in the country looks so discombobulated right now on both ends of the court.”
The biggest question is also a simple one: What has gone wrong so suddenly? In recent weeks, coach Chris Holtmann and his players have discussed perhaps having let practice effort slide, contributing to the beginning of this stretch. More recently, Holtmann has questioned his team's toughness, a lengthy talking point after a 90-76 loss at Penn State on Jan. 18.
The Buckeyes responded by playing harder and more aggressively five days later at home against Minnesota, but the Golden Gophers made the winning plays in the final minute for a 62-59 win.
When they were 11-1, the Buckeyes were averaging 79.2 points and had been held below 70 just once, when they fended off Cincinnati 64-56 in the opener. Since then, Ohio State has failed to top 60 points in five of seven games and is averaging 62.9 points. The struggles have occasionally carried over to defense, where Ohio State allowed 90 points at Penn State to match its highest total since Gonzaga in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Mike DeCourcy, who covers college basketball for The Sporting News and is a studio analyst for the Big Ten Network, said he sees players passing up shots they weren't weeks ago.
“To me, that's a total dissolution of confidence,” he said. “None of those guys should pass up that shot, and I saw it. The difference between them and success in this league isn't 20 possessions, it's five or six.”
From a historical standpoint, DeCourcy drew a potential parallel for the Buckeyes. During the 2010-11 season, Connecticut took a 17-2 overall record into the end of January and closed the regular season by losing seven of its final 11 games to stumble its way into the Big East conference tournament. Playing on the first day, the Huskies won five straight to take the title and then ran through the NCAA Tournament to capture the national championship.
To have a chance at anything like that, former player Jim Jackson said the Buckeyes need to start by taking better care of the ball and making more shots.
“It's not like one thing, it's a combination of two or three things that affect why they haven't been as consistent in conference play,” said Jackson, a two-time All-American who has called multiple Ohio State games as a Fox Sports 1 analyst. “For coach Holtmann, it's a matter of having them be wired in with what they're trying to do and be confident with what they do.”
The Minnesota game kicked off what figured to be a favorable stretch for growth. After the Penn State game, Ohio State had three games in 16 days, including two at home.
Jackson said the ample practice time afforded by the schedule should help mentally.
“It's not like there's a lot of tweaking,” he said. “It's more so between the ears with a lot of the players and having them go through this gauntlet of the Big Ten and stay positive. It's almost like (being) a psychologist.”
At a basic level, White said progress will be seen in ways that are hard to quantify.
“How much fun are they having out there?” he said. “Right now, these guys don't seem like they're having much fun. When they start looking to have that energy and they're playing with fun and they're playing loose and they're enjoying their teammates and experience, that's where we'll have a clue they're turning the corner.”
After playing Northwestern, the Buckeyes will be off until Saturday when they play Indiana at Value City Arena to reach the midpoint of the conference schedule. From there, games at Michigan and Wisconsin loom in the following eight days.
The Wildcats and Hoosiers present a combined opportunity to get right. Wins there would go a long way toward fixing the issues that have held the Buckeyes back.
“What they're going through right now shakes your confidence in yourself and your teammates,” White said. “The only way out of that hole is to experience success, and that is to take what you do in practice, go out on a court against an opponent and beat them. Once that happens, then you start to believe again.”