As offense gets offensive, Buckeyes must turn around recent form as March Madness looms
It had been nearly four minutes since Ohio State had made a field goal, and already the men’s basketball team was starting to press. Facing No. 9 Iowa inside Value City Arena on Sunday, the Buckeyes were trailing 15-9 and Duane Washington Jr. was trying to do something about it.
As he’s done with high frequency in recent games, the Ohio State junior eschewed a three-pointer, put the ball on the deck and drove the line. Near the rim, his layup attempt was met by Keegan Murray, a 6-8 freshman who got enough of the ball to force a miss. As the ball appeared headed out of bounds, though, Murray nabbed it and fired it off of Washington, whose momentum had taken him past the baseline.
It was Iowa ball. Washington offered a wry smile at Murray’s heads-up play and trotted back down the court. The team’s second-leading scorer would finish with a season-low seven points as the Buckeyes took a third straight loss in alarming fashion.
Three days after being held to 67 points in a loss at Michigan State, the Buckeyes would sputter their way to a season-low 57 points against an Iowa team that ranks 59th nationally in defensive efficiency and was allowing 73.1 points per game.
“I didn’t think the ball moved very well (against Iowa),” Holtmann said after the game. “Iowa’s activity had something to do with that. We’ve got to take a look at it. The ball’s gotta move. We’ve got to take a higher quality of shot than we took here today. We were really, really sloppy with the ball, as sloppy as we’ve been all year.”
The Hawkeyes turned the Buckeyes over on 19.7% of their possessions, the fourth-best showing for the Iowa defense in Big Ten play. Starting guards CJ Walker and Washington each had four turnovers.
All games in this three-game losing streak have not been equal. The 92-87 loss to Michigan on February 21 was the fourth-best offensive efficiency performance of the season according to KenPom.com and a game where, based on 100 possessions, the Buckeyes would score 129.3 points.
Since that loss, Ohio State’s offensive efficiency ratings against Michigan State (98.0) and Iowa (86.3) are the fourth-lowest and lowest, respectively, for this season. And aside from E.J. Liddell, who has scored between 15-23 points in their past five games, the Buckeyes have seen struggles across the board in the two most recent losses.
Two players have had the most glaring individual struggles. After scoring 30 in the loss to Michigan, Washington has scored 24 in the last two games while going 2 for 12 from three and 10 for 26 overall. Junior Justin Ahrens, meanwhile, has just one made shot in his last three games — a three-pointer against Iowa. After moving into the starting lineup for a Jan. 13 home game against Northwestern, Ahrens averaged 6.2 three-point attempts in the next 10 games, connecting on 45.2% (28 for 62) of his attempts during that stretch.
In his past three games, Ahrens is 1 for 5 from the field overall and did not attempt a three in the Michigan State loss.
“He’s got to really hunt opportunities without forcing things,” Holtmann said Monday on his weekly radio show. “I’ve got no problem with how he’s playing right now. He’s just not getting as clean of looks as he did a month ago.”
Without Ahrens chipping in, the Buckeyes are 9 for 31 (29.0%) from three in their past two games after hitting 37.3% during their first 17 Big Ten games. In addition, they are getting to the line less (average of 16.5 free-throw attempts during the last two games compared to 20.8 during the first 17 Big Ten games) and shooting a worse percentage (69.7% during the last two compared to 78.1% through 17 Big Ten games) when they get there.
Some of the struggles can be attributed to injury-limited efforts from Kyle Young (concussion), Justice Sueing (groin), Walker (torn ligaments in right hand), Musa Jallow (left ankle) and Seth Towns (left knee). At this point in the season, no teams are immune from crowded trainers’ rooms.
Saturday, they get one more tune-up before the postseason when No. 4 Illinois comes to Value City Arena. The Illini are ranked No. 16 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but in the prior meeting between these teams this season the Buckeyes scored 87 points in what was the second-worst performance for the Illinois defense this year.
What the Buckeyes can do offensively this time around could say a lot about what kind of March is in store for them.