Rob Oller | Ohio State has lost three in a row? Get back to us when the streak reaches 17

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ken Johnson (32) was a raw sophomore in the 1997-98 season for Ohio State, which suffered through a 17-game losing streak and went 1-15 in the Big Ten.

After three consecutive losses, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has lost its edge and its coach is on edge, but the Buckeyes and Chris Holtmann have yet to go over the edge. Of the cliff. Or the bench.

Even if No. 4 Illinois comes into Value City Arena on Saturday and hands OSU its fourth loss in a row, there still would be miles of “L’s” to go before hitting rock bottom. 

That’s not to say anyone in Buckeyeland is happy with where Ohio State is at the moment. After climbing to No. 4 in the polls, and staying there even after losing to Michigan on Feb. 21, the Buckeyes slid to No. 7 following losses to unranked Michigan State and Iowa, which was No. 9 at the time.

The Buckeyes now must defeat the Illini on senior day to avoid losing four straight for the third consecutive season.

The defense needs work. Duane Washington Jr. needs to be the same slasher who scored 30 points against Michigan. E.J. Liddell has to get tougher inside and not rely on the 10-foot fadeaway. Justin Ahrens needs to get open. Justice Sueing needs to wake up.

That is hard reality, but so is this: No matter what unforeseen misfortune happens the rest of the way — whether surprisingly quick exits from the Big Ten or NCAA Tournaments — these Buckeyes will never descend into the Mariana Trench of sadness that saw the 1997-98 team lose 17 consecutive games.

Seven. Teen.

Former Ohio State center Ken Johnson was there for every one of the losses, including 14 in a row to Big Ten opponents, which in part explains why he has repressed the negative memories of his sophomore season.

The other part? “I’m getting old, man,” Johnson said on Friday.

The ’97-98 season did not help his aging process. Johnson joined freshman scoring machine Michael Redd, a few well-intending upperclassmen and a handful of holdovers from the tumultuous end of Randy Ayers’ college coaching career to spackle a 8-22 season that included a 1-15 record in the Big Ten.

But those trials also allow Johnson to encourage the Buckeyes that what feels like a 30-story fall is just a stumble off the bottom step.

“That’s nothing at all, oh my goodness,” Johnson said of the current three-game swoon. 

What Johnson experienced was 17 games of nothing that seem hard to believe. For perspective, I caught up with Bob Baptist, former Ohio State men’s basketball beat writer for The Dispatch, who covered the 1997-98 team coached by Jim O’Brien.

Baptist's recollection of the crime scene wasn’t pretty, but in hindsight was pretty funny, at least to those not playing the games.

“I had a cut-and-paste paragraph stored in my computer that I would just plug in after every loss, and update the numbers,” Baptist recalled. “Obie said” — and here Baptist imitates the former coach’s Brooklyn accent — “ ‘Do you have to write that losing streak in every story?’ ”

Of course he did. Baptist, a proud product of Watergate-era journalism, worked for the paper, not the coach.

It didn't take long for first-year Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien to realize he had his hands full with a ragtag group in the 1997-98 season.

Early in the skid, as OSU was going 0-3 during the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, Baptist watched O’Brien go over the bench to confront a fan who had been heckling him.

Compared with that, Holtmann picking up two technical fouls and getting ejected in the final seconds of the loss to Michigan State on Feb. 25 is child’s play.

Later in the streak, it was an opposing coach who got vocal with fans. As Purdue pounded the Buckeyes 107-75 in St. John Arena — the last season all games were played in St. John before moving to the new Schottenstein Center a year later — Boilermakers coach Gene Keady jawed with Ohio State fans.

Baptist chuckled while recalling that “Keady said he was just paying them back for all those years of football.”

Stress increased and patience decreased during the 17-game stench, but Johnson said the Buckeyes never turned on each other. He emphasized that current players can learn from how he and his teammates handled the struggle.

“We had to go out there and fight,” Johnson said. “These Ohio State Buckeyes now have to find that leader, someone who will step up and bring them over that hump.”

For the ‘97-98 Buckeyes that someone was Scoonie Penn, who though sitting out the season as a transfer from Boston College still was working behind the scenes.

“Scoonie was a major factor. He wouldn’t let us quit,” Johnson said.

Baptist remembers that “Scoonie beat them every day in practice, with the second team.”

In an amazing one-year turnaround, Penn and Redd led Ohio State to the 1999 Final Four. No wonder Johnson isn’t worried about a “mini” losing streak. 

“They got it made,” he said. “Just play hard … and find that hunger again. They’ll be fine.”

The cliff edge is not that close, even if falling to Illinois would still hurt.  

roller@dispatch.com

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