How turnovers doomed Ohio State against West Virginia and what it means about this season

Adam Jardy
Ohio State's CJ Walker reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against West Virginia Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Cleveland. West Virginia defeated Ohio State 67-59. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

CLEVELAND – In hindsight, the start of Sunday’s game foreshadowed the ending for No. 2 Ohio State.

Playing at a neutral site in front of a crowd that definitely leaned more toward No. 22 West Virginia inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Buckeyes won the opening tip and worked the ball to Andre Wesson on the block. From there, he attempted a high-risk pass to Kyle Young on the opposite block that resulted in a turnover.

After Young drew a charge at the other end, he committed a turnover when he lost the ball along the baseline.

One possession later, it was Kaleb Wesson who slipped on an attempted drive from the three-point line, marking a third Ohio State turnover before attempting a single shot attempt.

Yes, this was against a West Virginia program with a deserved reputation for forcing teams into turnovers in bunches. But these weren’t turnovers related to pressure, or length, or much of anything in the way of extra effort from the Mountaineers.

These were turnovers like the ones the Buckeyes committed in an otherwise impressive, 80-48 win against Southeast Missouri 12 days prior. That Ohio State committed 21 turnovers, most of which were self-inflicted, had been relegated largely to memory with a statement win four days later against No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas.

Sunday afternoon, they would finish with a season-high 22. Their turnover rate of 30.0 percent was the highest since a 30.8 percent mark in a 65-49 loss at Michigan on Jan. 29, 2019, a game played by a team with a much less dangerous offense.

But against the Mountaineers, the Buckeyes couldn’t get out of their own way enough to give themselves a chance to win. At halftime, Ohio State held a 37-31 lead despite 10 turnovers because only two of them came in the final 11:17. Then, in the second half, Ohio State only went more than four minutes without a turnover once, and that happened in between another ill-advised block-to-block pass attempt from Andre Wesson to Young with 6:12 to play and a CJ Walker charge with 2:06 remaining.

At one point, five straight possessions resulted in turnovers. It started when the Buckeyes held a 40-34 lead early in the second half when Andre Wesson was whistled for shuffling his feet in the post. Then D.J. Carton threw a bad pass to the wing for Wesson, Walker threw a pass off Young’s hands and out of bounds, Duane Washington Jr. was whistled for a charge and finally E.J. Liddell lost the ball in the paint as the shot clock wound down.

Meanwhile, West Virginia put together a 7-0 run to take the lead, and it was all a struggle from then on for the Buckeyes.

“I’d have to look at film, but I think it was probably a combination of both for sure,” coach Chris Holtmann said when asked if the majority of the turnovers were forced or self-inflicted. “There were certainly some that were unforced and some they created.”

Junior guard CJ Walker, who entered with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1, had one assist and four turnovers. One game after having two assists and one turnover in a breakout game against Kentucky, Carton had a game-high five turnovers and two assists. Kaleb Wesson, like Walker, finished with one assist and four turnovers.

The lone bright spot was sophomore Luther Muhammad, who had three assists and no turnovers. He was the only Ohio State player to see more than a minute of playing time not to have at least one turnover.

“They crashed the boards, they made shots towards the end of the game,” Walker said. “We didn’t make shots towards the end, we had turnovers and we didn’t execute as much as we did in the first half.”

What did he see as the reasons for that lack of execution?

“Just a lack of togetherness and communication and things like that,” he said. “Playing in an environment like that, a lot of things could happen. It got the best of us tonight.”

Suddenly, the Buckeyes have dropped to No. 207 nationally in turnover percentage at 20.2 percent according to Last year’s team, which was ranked No. 84 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, was No. 193 nationally at 18.7 percent.

Holtmann said frequently throughout the season that no team can be elite if its turnover percentage is in the mid-100s nationally. This year’s team ranks No. 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which suggests that it has the potential to be elite.

The growing caveat there is that the Buckeyes have to give themselves chances to actually shoot the ball in order to take advantage of their talents. When West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked what had concerned him about Ohio State entering the game, he said, “They make shots. They really make shots. We knew we couldn’t give them step-in shots.”

The Buckeyes shot 33.3 percent from three, below their season average of 40.9 percent but better than the 24.6 percent clip teams were shooting against the Mountaineers entering the game. As they were turning the ball over 12 times during the second half, though, the Buckeyes made only five field goals after halftime.

After a Carton three-pointer (his only points of the game) with 11:49 to play gave Ohio State a 43-41 lead, the Buckeyes wouldn’t hit another field goal until an Andre Wesson three-pointer (his only points of the game) with 4:40 to play also gave them a 54-53 lead. In between, the Buckeyes got eight points on free throws.

Last year’s team was susceptible to prolonged scoring droughts. This year’s team hasn’t experienced many of them since the opener against Cincinnati. Holtmann said timeouts and huddles during the scoring droughts they experienced Sunday focused on just making the next right play.

“Just get good shots,” Kaleb Wesson said of the message. “We trust our guys with the shots they take. We just want to take good ones. When we’re taking good shots and we’re executing, we’re fine on offense.”

Added Holtmann, “You’ve got to move on in a game like this because there’s so many possessions that are ugly when you play West Virginia. That’s part of it. Talking to them about making the next right play.”

That continued after the game. Big Ten play resumes Friday when Wisconsin comes to town, and Kaleb Wesson said Holtmann’s postgame message was about moving forward.

“All we can do is go to work now,” he said. “We can’t go back and play the game and put 40 minutes on the clock. We’ve got to work on our toughness and as a team get better.”