Rob Oller: Who knows what ails Ohio State men's basketball? We do — and we don't

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State and guard CJ Walker, here driving against Illinois on Saturday, have run into tough times with a regular-season ending four-game losing streak.
  • Ohio State has lost four consecutive games for the third straight season

For most of the season Ohio State men’s basketball was right there, but now something is wrong here. Four consecutive losses. The Buckeyes are struggling to create offense in crunch time and can’t close out games like they did a month ago.

Let’s examine what we know of those issues, what we think we know and what we don’t know. 

Four-game losing streak. What we know: Ohio State has lost at least four games in a row for three consecutive seasons. The past two years the slide happened mostly in January, which allowed for recovery before the NCAA Tournament. 

What we think we know: Timing matters, as does the opponent. Three of the four losses — Michigan, Illinois and Iowa — are ranked in the Associated Press top 10. Another way to look at the skid is to reverse when it happened on the schedule. Given preseason uncertainty involving inexperience, transfers and depth, a four-game losing streak at the beginning or even midpoint of 2020-21 would not have been shocking. Because it has come late, and because the Buckeyes looked so good through mid-winter, 0-4 is perplexing.

What we don’t know: Back-to-back-to-back seasons of losing streaks could be a timing anomaly, but it is fair to speculate whether coach Chris Holtmann is prone to fatiguing his players, either physically or mentally, until they eventually recover both their floor and “feelings” legs. Is it too late for the recovery to happen?

Failure to finish. What we know: Two of the last four losses, to unranked Michigan State and No 4 Illinois, saw Ohio State surrender leads down the stretch. The Buckeyes led MSU by nine with 13 minutes to play before the Spartans rallied to win, 71-67. The Fighting Illini trailed by four points with 3:46 left on Saturday but held Ohio State scoreless the rest of the way in a 73-68 win at Value City Arena. (Aside: don’t get too bent by home losses, considering that lack of fans diminishes home-court advantage.)

Blowing leads runs counter to the way OSU remained poised under pressure in smothering opponents’ comebacks earlier in the season. 

What we think we know: Defense, a season-long concern, is improved. But the Buckeyes still sleepwalk through pockets of games. More confounding of late, the offense is off-kilter in crucial moments. Against the Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes missed their last 10 shots during their game-ending scoring drought.

Losing to Illinois at home showed a regression in lesson learning. It appeared Ohio State had advanced past the point of rushing shots and losing its composure late. Saturday proved otherwise.

“Keep teaching, keep working on it,” Holtmann said after the Illinois loss. “Guys have to make better decisions. Some of it comes down to making shots. They make an open three. We miss an open three. That’s basketball.”

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. scores while being fouled by Illinois guard Adam Miller on Saturday.

Fair enough, but seven of those final 10 misses shots should not have been three-point attempts. Junior guard Duane Washington Jr. still plays, as one wag put it, “like a grenade with the pin halfway out.”

Holtmann lives and dies with Washington’s free-spirited approach to shot selection, because to sit him is to further cripple the offense. The Buckeyes are not talented enough to survive without a go-to scorer, even one who goes too often toward playing hero ball.

What we don’t know: Are the late-game swoons a coaching issue? What is being said and drawn up in those second-half huddles? Or do the Buckeyes simply not have enough talent, and like water seeking its level this team is settling into its proper slotting, which is just above middle of the pack in the Big Ten?

Holtmann is 84-42 (.667) with two NCAA second-round losses in four seasons. He has been named one of 10 finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. He also has enjoyed an extended honeymoon period, aided by last year’s cancelation of the NCAA Tournament and this season’s lack of normalcy due to COVID-19. 

Rob Oller

Yet despite the Buckeyes rising as high as No. 4 in the rankings — they were No. 7 as of Sunday — this four-game stumble has increased the grumbling among those who blame Holtmann for everything from underwhelming recruiting to poor clock management. Some criticism is warranted, but the majority opinion is that OSU is on the right path. 

I asked former Ohio State point guard Scoonie Penn about Holtmann, knowing Penn worked under him for two seasons.

“This is not on Holt at all,” Penn said. “He’s done a great job coaching this team. I’m not shocked (by the losing streak). They were overachieving.”

Can they overachieve deep into March? That comes under “We don’t know,” but ending the losing streak on Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis would be a smart place to start.   

roller@dispatch.com

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