Defense lets Ohio State down in epic men's basketball battle with Big Ten rival Michigan

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
The 92 points Ohio State allowed in a loss to Michigan on Sunday were the most it has given up in the Chris Holtmann era and illustrated the need for OSU to improve its defense against the likes of guard Chaundee Brown.

Beauty was in the eye of the beholder late Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena.

Objectively, the national college basketball media was fawning over the game between No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State that had just taken place.

Standing at the midcourt line awaiting a socially distanced interview with CBS, Michigan coach Juwan Howard was smiling, waving to one media member in the stands who was calling his name and clapping.

Moments later, his Ohio State counterpart, Chris Holtmann, was in the bunker that serves as the postgame virtual interview room. Despite a 30-point effort from Duane Washington Jr., the Buckeyes had seen their seven-game winning streak come to an end at the hands of their rivals in a high-octane, 92-87 loss.

The game had been a heck of a lot of fun, but that wasn’t the first word that came to mind for Holtmann.

“Disappointed,” he said. “There’s no question. You lose a game, you’re disappointed. The expectation for us was we were going to play well. In spots we did play well. We didn’t finish the game well enough.”

That much is true. A game with 11 ties and 17 lead changes saw its final one take place with 5:45 left when the Wolverines scored on their fourth shot on one possession to take a 71-69 lead they would never lose.

Still, the showing provided some validation that Ohio State belongs near the top of the sport this season, a fact reflected Monday when it did not drop from No. 4 in the updated Associated Press poll.

It also might have delivered some new ammunition to OSU’s remaining practice time this season.

That starts at the defensive end. Not only were the 92 points the most the Buckeyes have allowed during the Holtmann era and the most since Indiana scored 96 in the regular-season finale on March 4, 2017, but Ohio State’s defensive efficiency rating of 136.7 is the third-highest it’s allowed in the era that dates to 2001.

The defensive performance finally proved to be too much for Ohio State’s high-powered offense to overcome. The Buckeyes had an offensive efficiency rating of 129.3, which is the highest for an Ohio State team in a loss during the KenPom era.

Maybe, as it turns out, the Buckeyes aren’t a team that can just try to outscore opponents at the expense of their defense.

“We’ve been ringing that bell for a few weeks now with some of our (defensive) numbers,” Holtmann said. “We’ll see if we can make improvements in those areas. I don’t think this team necessarily has the potential to be elite defensively. We need to get better.”

Two truths came out of the game: The Buckeyes can play with any team in the country, and they simultaneously need to improve at the defensive end.

Going toe-to-toe with Michigan on Sunday showed that Ohio State and guard Duane Washington Jr. can play with any team in college basketball, but that defensive improvement is imperative.

“We can hang with them and we showed that,” sophomore forward E.J. Liddell said. “We just didn’t make them miss. We made a lot of shots ourselves. Giving up that many threes to them in the first half did it.”

In the first half, Michigan hit 10 of 13 from three-point range. In the second, it was just 1 for 10, but 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson scored 16 of his team-high 22 points to fend off the Buckeyes. Plug one hole, another one springs loose.

The absence of versatile defender Musa Jallow, who suffered a left ankle injury Thursday at Penn State, contributed to the performance. On his Monday radio show, Holtmann said Jallow’s status for Michigan State on Thursday is unknown and that the fourth-year junior was dealing with significant swelling.

In the end, Michigan ran off the court celebrating while the Buckeyes sang “Carmen Ohio” to the largest crowd of family members they have hosted all year. It was a bittersweet ending to what had been a banner day for the sport.

“We know what we’re capable of and what our plan is to do here,” Washington said. “Everybody wishes we could get this one back.”