What's up with these Buckeyes in crunch time? What the numbers say
There were days, not all that long ago, when the end of games marked the time for the Ohio State men’s basketball team to shine.
It wasn’t a guarantee, necessarily, but as the Buckeyes were putting together a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games, they did so by taking care of business when it mattered the most.
Discussions about crunch-time performance by OSU often elicited a common phrase from coach Chris Holtmann, be it after a shootout win at Iowa, a tense victory at Illinois or a hard-fought home win against Penn State: Players make plays, and players win games.
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Those words haven’t been said in a while, at least as they relate to the Buckeyes. A team picked to finish seventh in the preseason media poll conducted jointly by The Dispatch and The Athletic that spent most of February ranked No. 4 nationally now limps into the postseason with a four-game losing streak. Furthering matters, the Buckeyes have either led or been within one point during the final five minutes in each of the four losses, except for a 16-point defeat to Iowa on Feb. 28.
This past Saturday against Illinois, the Buckeyes led 68-64 with 3:48 to play. At Michigan State on Feb. 25, they led 61-57 with 4:46 to play. And against Michigan on Feb. 21, OSU trailed only 75-74 with four minutes remaining.
In those final 12 minutes, 34 seconds combined, Ohio State was outscored 40-19. The Wolverines closed with a 17-13 run, the Spartans with a 14-6 stretch and the Illini scored the final nine points of the game. That adds up to three losses by a combined 14 points to two top-10 teams and a third that is poised to be an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve just got to keep teaching,” Holtmann said after Saturday’s loss to the Illini. “Got to learn and guys gotta make better decisions. Some of it comes down to making shots. (The Illini) make an open three, we miss an open three. Some of that, that’s basketball.”
Against Illinois, the Buckeyes missed their final 10 shot attempts, including seven missed three-point tries — three by Duane Washington Jr., two by Justin Ahrens and one each by Kyle Young and E.J. Liddell.
Not that long ago, the Buckeyes enjoyed success in such late-game situations. One game before the Michigan loss, Ohio State’s lead at Penn State had been trimmed to 80-75 with 3:24 to play. The Buckeyes closed that game with a 12-7 run to win 92-82.
And in the first meeting with the Hawkeyes, Ohio State clung to a 79-78 lead with 4:16 left and would fend off Iowa to close out an 89-85 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In those two instances, Ohio State outscored its opponents 22-14.
Five players combined for those 22 points, with Washington (1 for 1 on layups, 4 for 5 from the free-throw line) and Ahrens (2 for 3 from three) leading the way with six points each. Liddell had just one shot in those two situations, a made three-pointer at Penn State, while Washington did not attempt a three.
Against Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois, the numbers took a precipitous drop. Washington scored six points in those games on 2-of-13 shooting from the field, including 2 of 9 from three-point range. Liddell had six points, all on free throws while missing all five shots. Ahrens was 0 for 2 from three, Young missed his lone three-point attempt and CJ Walker was 1 for 2 on layups with a missed three-pointer, a missed jumper and two made free throws.
Also recently, the Buckeyes have failed to produce in the easiest way possible in tight games — at the free-throw line. They attempted only eight free throws in the closing minutes of the losses to Michigan, MSU and Illinois after getting 12 shots from the foul line late in wins against Penn State and Iowa.
That speaks to a larger issue throughout games: the Big Ten’s best free-throw-shooting team, at 77%, attempted fewer than 15 free throws in just one of the first 22 games of the season. But during this four-game slide, Ohio State has been held below that threshold three times.
The Buckeyes attempted a season-low 10 free throws in the Iowa loss and had only 11 against Illinois on Saturday, which puts even more of a premium on making shots.
As Holtmann referenced multiple times, Washington had a clean look on a three when the Illini went under a ball screen in the closing minutes that just didn’t go in. If it had, the Buckeyes likely would have won that game.
“We played against a good defense,” Holtmann said. “We’ve just got to be more committed to getting the ball where we want to get to, but we’re probably having a different conversation if Duane makes that three coming to his left.”