Buckeyes still working on defense as their offense carries the load

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State is far from an elite defensive basketball team, but active defense remains part of the team DNA for E.J. Liddell and the rest of the Buckeyes.

There typically is a surefire way to earn playing time for Chris Holtmann, and it starts at one end of the court.

Any current member of the Ohio State men’s basketball team will report that defense carries the day when it comes to carving out a role in the rotation.

It’s not that the Buckeyes haven’t been proficient on offense during Holtmann’s four-season tenure, but this season has taken things to a new level.

Behind an offense that is the highest-rated for an Ohio State team in a decade, the No. 4 Buckeyes will host Indiana on Saturday as a team still hoping that its defense can catch up to where its scoring has taken it.

“I don’t necessarily think we’re going to be an elite defensive team, but we have to continue to get better in that area,” Holtmann said Friday. “We can continue to get better.”

Rather than focusing on points per game, Holtmann prefers to cite adjusted efficiency numbers to gauge how his team is performing. Per 100 possessions, this Ohio State team is allowing 95.4 points per game, according to KenPom.com, the 64th-best mark in the nation and the lowest ranking in Holtmann’s four seasons.

Offensively, the Buckeyes (16-4, 10-4 Big Ten) are fourth, scoring 121.0 points per 100 possessions for their highest rating since the 2010-11 season.

This marks the second straight season the Buckeyes have had a better-ranked offense than defense, but the difference this year is more drastic. Last season’s team was 13th in offense and 19th in defense, the first time the Buckeyes were top-20 in both categories since 2012-13.

It's also not the first time Holtmann has had a team that leaned so heavily into its offensive capabilities. During his second season at Butler, the 2015-16 Bulldogs finished 15th in offensive efficiency and 97th in defensive efficiency. That team went 22-11, earned a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to Virginia in the second round.

Ultimately, though, defensive capabilities will likely determine how far these Buckeyes can go this March. Dating back to the 2001-02 season, no eventual national champion has entered the postseason ranked lower than 37th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Ohio State has its most effective offensive team in a decade, but that doesn't mean coach Chris Holtmann has stopped preaching defense.

“(Defense) has got to be important to us and we’ve got to get better at it, but in our short time here we’ve had some very good offensive teams,” Holtmann said. “People can have perceptions, but we were also good defensively last year and that’s where we’ve just got to keep working and keep getting better.”

Defense wasn’t an issue at Iowa on Feb. 4, when the Buckeyes won an 89-85 shootout against a Hawkeyes team that is now ranked No. 120 in adjusted defensive efficiency. It marked their third win in as many tries this season when allowing an opponent to score at least 80 points.

During Holtmann’s first three seasons, the Buckeyes were 1-10 when allowing teams to score at least 80 points. The last Ohio State team to win three games in which it allowed at least 80 points was the 1995-96 team, which was 10-17 overall and 3-15 in Big Ten play while finishing 10th in the standings.

“We know what we’re capable of offensively,” junior Justin Ahrens said after the Iowa win. “We know we can put the ball in the hoop with anybody in the country, but if we were going to come down and win this game we were going to have to string together a few stops.”

Although the numbers indicate this is a team that has more success trying to outscore its opponents instead of focusing on limiting their opportunities, that’s not the message Holtmann is preaching to his players.

“I think that has to be a staple for us, our defensive commitment as much as anything,” Holtmann said. “As a coach, we’re gauging commitment on that end, competitiveness on that end, attention to detail, following through on the scouting report, all those things.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 4 Ohio State vs. Indiana

When: noon Saturday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)