Ohio State men's basketball notebook | Buckeyes down but not out after Michigan loss
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It was the final line of questioning after the final game of a month most teams would try to forget.
Tuesday night at the Crisler Center, the Ohio State men’s basketball team came up short in multiple facets in a 65-49 loss to No. 5 Michigan. Along the way, the Buckeyes committed 19 turnovers, shot only 23.8 percent from three-point range and were called for two technical fouls when frustrations bubbled over with roughly eight minutes to play and the game slipping away.
The loss capped a January that saw the Buckeyes enter 2019 with a 12-1 record, stumble to their first five-game losing streak in 21 years, rebound with a road win against Nebraska last weekend and then seemingly lose control against the Wolverines. Contained therein are any number of reasons why a season could be seen as spiraling, why expectations should be lowered and why morale would be sinking.
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But in his postgame press conference, coach Chris Holtmann didn’t agree with any such viewpoints. Neither did senior guard C.J. Jackson, the lone player summoned to be the team’s representative to reporters waiting outside the locker room.
“Good, yeah, good,” Holtmann said when asked about the morale of his locker room. When the follow-up asked if he had no concerns, Holtmann expanded on his thoughts.
“No, none,” he said. “Not that I’d share with you anyway, but I really don’t have concerns. I like this group. I like coaching this group. I believe in this group and believe that we’re going to continue to find a way to improve. I’ve not heard one moment of guys complaining about each other or complaining about this or that, I really haven’t. I have not heard that.
“Our locker room is disappointed and frustrated, the normal feelings that a young team would go through going through a difficult stretch, but it’s in a pretty healthy place outside of frustration and disappointment.”
That much is to be expected. Jackson said as such.
“I wouldn’t say (this was) a step back,” he said. “We knew that even though we won on Saturday, we have to continue to get better. We’re nowhere near our capabilities. Just in the first half, we’re down six against a team that’s going to have a really good season. That shows we can compete against the best when we’re at our best.”
The turnover issue remained exactly that. Ohio State shot 45.5 percent during the first half against the Big Ten’s stingiest defense in conference play, but it still trailed by six because it had turned the ball over 11 times. Then as things started to drift sideways in the second half, and fouls either piled up or weren’t called, the frustration seemed to boil over with 8:05 left.
Trailing by 12, Justin Ahrens missed a three-pointer and Kaleb Wesson was whistled for a foul on the rebound. It was his third for the game, and as the players headed back up the court the jawing began. Words were exchanged, as was a shove or two, but order was restored and four players were assessed technical fouls: Wesson and Keyshawn Woods for the Buckeyes and Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske for the Wolverines.
“I think we can handle it better,” Holtmann said when asked about how his team handled the emotional components of the game. “I think that was an accumulation of probably some frustration for a variety of reasons. I thought the game was really physical for the bulk of the game and when it’s that physical, those things tend to happen. Both teams would look at it and say they could probably handle it better.”
Does Ohio State have the players capable of handling the physicality that a game like this demanded?
“We have to get there,” Holtmann said. “We have a lot of young bodies that are thrown out there and realizing that for the first time. We’re not there yet, and obviously Kyle being out affects that. He’s a physical body and a live body but we’re just not there yet. Give them (the Wolverines) credit for how they played.”
Outside of the emotions that tend to surface when Ohio State and Michigan play, Jackson downplayed the notion that there was an extra emotional component to this game that compounded things for the Buckeyes.
“I don’t think it made it any more challenging,” he said. “Obviously you know about the rivalry. Everybody was pumped up to play on both teams. We knew coming in that both teams were going to throw punches during the game, and they ended up throwing a couple more.”
It was left unsaid if Jackson was speaking literally or figuratively. Either way, Holtmann said he’d have to look at the tape before commenting on whether or not the game was too physical. Ohio State was called for 18 fouls and Michigan 14.
No foul was called on the final play before halftime, when Woods was drilled while trying to snag a pass.
“I thought that the last play of the half was a significant one where a guy got plowed, but if it’s that kind of a game and that physical then that’s how you’ve got to play,” Holtmann said. “Ultimately I think if it’s going to be that’s the way the game’s going to be called, then we have to raise our physicality.”
Atypical hot start
Michigan has made hay this season by stifling teams from the opening tip to build an early lead, but Ohio State didn’t let that happen tonight. Instead, the Buckeyes were scoring points at a shockingly high level against a team ranked No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.
Andre Wesson buried a three-pointer with 11:23 left in the first half that gave Ohio State a 17-12 lead and had the visitors on pace to score 78.9 points. Michigan was allowing Big Ten teams to score 59.0 per game, and just one team had topped 69 points against the Wolverines this year.
It didn’t last.
“I think they did a really good job being active with their hands and being physical in some wall-ups and their length and activity creating some missed shots and some turnovers,” Holtmann said. “Give them credit for that. I thought we had some open looks where we just missed and then there was a stretch where they made some open looks that we didn’t make and it kind of broke the game open.”
Not surprisingly, this wound up being Ohio State’s worst-rated offensive efficiency rating of the season. Of their seven lowest-rated games of the season, the Buckeyes have lost six of them with the 68-50 Samford win the lone outlier.
The last time Ohio State was held below 50 points in a game was a 72-48 loss at Wisconsin on March 8, 2015. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 22 nationally in the game and the Badgers No. 6.
“We were all connected (early) for the most part,” Jackson said. “Everyone knew we had to get our teams’ best shot based on how well defensively they are. We were getting that early and then that kind of slowed down. We took a couple bad ones and then they started hitting a couple shots off offensive rebounds. You can’t let down your guard like that.”
Wesson in check
He scored a team-high 12 points, but Kaleb Wesson’s impact was blunted as the game continued. The sophomore opened the game with a three-pointer, scored off and offensive rebound on the next possession and assisted on a Jackson drive two possessions later to personally account for the first seven points.
He scored again to give Ohio State a 12-6 lead with 14:40 left in the first half. That gave him seven points. He would score five more the rest of the way.
“I think you’ve got to give Michigan credit for that,” Holtmann said. “I thought he had a good start, but again, to expect that he’s going to be able to – he’s dealing with big bodies in the Big Ten. He’s a sophomore. He’s not quite there yet when it comes to being able to consistently score over guys that are in some cases bigger than him. He’s got to find other ways to impact the game, he’s got to be an asset on defense and offense, he’s got to keep his emotions in check and that’s a continual learning process. I think he’ll continue to grow in that area.”
It took Wesson 12 shots to get to 12 points. Two of his five made field goals were three-pointers. The Buckeyes were 5 for 21 (23.8 percent) from three, but Wesson was perfect on two attempts. That means the rest of his teammates were a combined 3 for 19 (15.8 percent).
After picking up the technical foul, Wesson did not return to the court. I asked Holtmann how he had coached the big man throughout the game as things started to slip away.
“I think we were just being positive with him,” he said. “I thought he did a good job for the most part staying out of foul trouble. He struggled finishing over Teske, and Teske’s a really good interior defender, a really good ball-screen defender. Listen: he struggled scoring over those wall-ups. He’s got to be a little more decisive with his moves and figure out other ways to impact the game.”
Likewise, Jackson had a stretch where he carried the Ohio State offense. After Michigan took its first lead of the game with 7:06 to play in the first half, Jackson scored seven straight points for the Buckeyes to briefly regain the lead at 26-25.
Most impressively was the fact that he did it by driving the basket on three straight possessions. On the first, he was fouled by Eli Brooks and converted both free throws. On the next, he beat Isaiah Livers, was fouled and finished the three-point play. On the third, he drew a foul on Ignas Brazdeikis, then finished the possession with a runner in the paint.
It was arguably the most consistently aggressive stretch of the season for Jackson. He would score only two more points during the game, going 1 of 3 from the floor during the second half to finish with 11 points.
“You knew their coach was going to make adjustments throughout the game,” he said. “I just wanted to be in attack mode and not on my heels and keep them on their heels. That was the biggest thing. Based on how they play, they like to switch and I was able to get a couple slower defenders on me.”
“Yeah, for sure. Every guy comes in for the most part with the right mind-set and understanding what our mistakes are and pretty much each game we’re continuing to make the same mistakes, but we understand we can’t do that or we’re going to keep getting the same result.” – Jackson, asked if the team has the right mind-set to turn things around