Surprisingly elite offensively, Ohio State working on its defense in Big Ten play

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
One of coach Chris Holtmann's challenges this season is to get his Ohio State basketball team to be as collectively strong on defense as it is on offense.

Chris Holtmann hasn’t seen a season quite like this in some time. Same goes for Ohio State men’s basketball fans.

As the No. 15 Buckeyes head to No. 10 Wisconsin for a Saturday game, they bring an offense bordering on elite, one ranked fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s their highest ranking since finishing first nationally in the 2010-11 season, one that saw Ohio State go 34-3 before being bounced by Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.

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At the other end of the court, though, the Buckeyes rank No. 72 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Of their five least-efficient offensive games, four of them have been losses. In short: the Buckeyes are proving to be a team that, rather than relying on their defense to win, have had to focus more on outscoring opponents than shutting them down.

While those numbers could improve with the possible return of senior point guard CJ Walker for the Wisconsin game, they’re still surprising given Holtmann’s history as a defensive-minded coach.

“I would like a more balanced group offensively and defensively than what we have right now,” Holtmann said. “That has to be an emphasis for us. Right or wrong, (strong defense) has maybe been what a lot of our teams have been built on.”

The potential to have issues on defense was evident to Holtmann and his staff when the Buckeyes began preparing for the season. Last year’s team allowed an average of 92.0 points per 100 possessions, the best among Holtmann’s first three seasons and Ohio State’s best mark since it allowed 88.0 during the 2013-14 season.

From last season's team, however, the Buckeyes lost their best wing defender (Andre Wesson) to graduation, their best post defender (Kaleb Wesson) to professional basketball opportunities and their best on-ball defender (Luther Muhammad) to transfer.

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Their departures left a need for this year’s group to be better overall than its individual parts.

“I think we have some good defenders but we have to be good collectively because I think individually defensively there’s some challenges,” Holtmann said. “Now, the flip side of that is I think offensively we’ve got a group that has turned in to be a really elite group offensively.”

Problems arise when the Buckeyes struggle offensively. After going 4-7 when scoring 70 or fewer points last season, they are just 1-4 this season in the same situation. Ohio State averages only 63.8 points per game in its four losses.

“Everyone on our team is very similar in size and very versatile so we all have to be able to guard anybody on the court,” forward Justice Sueing said. “I just have to know my personnel and know our principles and it’ll be all good.”

Sueing has pitched in at point guard to fill the void left by Walker's hand injury, and the senior's potential return would mean more minutes on the wing for the 6-foot-7 Sueing. Walker was scheduled to try to practice with the team in Madison on Friday and then see how his injured right hand felt.

“We’ll see how he does, if he can return to practice and to what degree he feels confident in his hand,” Holtmann said Thursday. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s going to depend on what he feels like his pain tolerance can be coming back.”

Walker would provide another moving piece on this Ohio State roster, which has seen plenty since practice began. A bevy of injuries and players returning from offseason surgeries have played a role in keeping the Buckeyes from building a cohesive defensive unit that’s also capable offensively.

“The sum of our parts defensively have to be really good for us to be good defensively,” Holtmann said. “And I just think overall, that’s been the challenge for us.”