Rob Oller: Ohio State lays egg, gets cracked by Oral Roberts in NCAA Tournament upset

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Well, that was borderline embarrassing. All right, fine. No borderline about it. Ohio State performed so pitifully in so many areas, including coaching, that finding positives proves difficult.

But here is one: the Buckeyes actually made it to overtime on Friday, which is like saying the trap door on the gallows failed to open on the first attempt. Hey, it’s something.

Seriously, the way in which Ohio State went sleepwalking through all but a few minutes of regulation and still managed to extend the game another five minutes felt like a win.

Welcome, March Madness:Ohio State didn't win against Oral Roberts in NCAA Tournament and people had serious reactions

Feelings are foolers, of course. The Buckeyes did not win. They lost. Bigly and badly. Yes, I know bigly is not a word. But if Ohio State is going to fake a performance then it feels appropriate to describe it with fake grammar. Fair is fair.

You may be wondering why it is taking so long to get to the morbid meat of the matter, which is that Ohio State lost 75-72 to a church school that had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1974. Easy explanation. It is because my compassion knows no limits. Waiting 187 words to mention the national headline that will haunt OSU for months, if not years — No. 2 seed Ohio State shocked by No. 15 Oral Roberts in NCAA first-round game — is a way of shielding OSU fans from facing yet another P.U. performance at PU.

This one involved men’s basketball and happened at Mackey Arena. The other one — hide your eyes — was the 2019 football debacle at Ross-Ade Stadium when the unranked Boilermakers upset No. 2 Ohio State 49-20. That loss was shocking. Friday’s was merely surprising, no matter what the national pundits say.

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If you have watched the Buckeyes this season, but especially over the past month, you cannot be shocked by what happened in West Lafayette. Ohio State had the makeup to make a deep run into March Madness, but only if players maximized filling their roles on a team built on role play. If not, the Buckeyes were just bad enough to lose to anyone. 

Against Oral Roberts they were more than bad enough. It is one thing to miss shots, commit turnovers and generally step on your own shoestrings. Hey, hiccups happen. But this was a big old belch. Every player not named E.J. Liddell and CJ Walker performed in a fog, while the coaching was borderline confusing. OK, again, no borderline about it. 

Ohio State guard Musa Jallow battles for a loose ball against Oral Roberts on Friday.

Outside of missing free throws — Ohio State went 9 of 18 at the line — the easiest way Ohio State could have lost to the Golden Eagles was if junior guard Duane Washington Jr. played too much hero ball (he did), the defense was slow to guard open Eagles (it was), the offense looked out-of-sync (it did) and the coaching either could not or would not clamp down on players hoisting ill-advised three-point attempts. 

The Buckeyes’ track record of success leans heavily on a heavy dose of Washington slashing to the basket. He’s really good at that. Scores a lot. Except when he stops doing it. Which happened again on Sunday.

Am I the only one who noticed? I am not.

Game coverage: Max Abmas taking over in Ohio State vs Oral Roberts March Madness game

“It’s something we didn’t take advantage of,” Walker said of not attacking the rim more often. “We took a lot of threes. We did that all season. That’s who we are as a team.”

Fair enough, but when the long ball isn’t working — OSU was 5 of 23 from three-point range, including Washington going 3 of 12 — small ball is the next best option. True, not having Kyle Young on the floor (concussion) allowed Oral Roberts to clog the lanes, but that just means adjustments must happen. 

One play stands out. With time ticking away in regulation and the score tied at 64, Washington dribbled left and launched a step-back jumper from just inside the three-point line that clanked off the front of the rim. It wasn’t the worst shot in the world, but it wasn’t the best. On to overtime it went, and out went Ohio State.

Mar 19, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justin Ahrens (middle) argues an out of bounds call during the second half as Ohio State Buckeyes guard Eugene Brown III (3) looks on in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

A sullen Chris Holtmann explained that Washington had the green light at the end of regulation, but the player also has the option to drive or pull up for the jumper if the lane is blocked.

“We were just trying to get in space and get downhill,” the Ohio State coach said. “Get him to his left hand, get him downhill off a (clearout) ghost action.’’

Reactions: No. 15 Oral Roberts stuns No. 2 Ohio State in NCAA Tournament first-round upset

Regardless, the play was not drawn up for Liddell, who despite making unforced errors down the stretch in overtime was the Buckeyes’ best option at that point, having scored 18 of his team-high 23 points in regulation. Maybe draw a foul from a team ranked 273th in fewest fouls allowed? 

Critics will have a field day with Holtmann’s coaching, and in this case deservedly so. Especially during the first half, before OSU began getting the ball to Liddell down low, the offense looked anemic. Defensively, it’s never good when you let the nation’s leading scorer, Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas, score nearly five points above his average of 24.2. This is Ohio State of the Big Ten, not University of Nebraska-Omaha of the Summit League.

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr.  reacts after an overtime loss to Oral Roberts.

Let’s just say it was not the OSU coaching staff’s finest hour. This loss will leave a mark. That said, the sane view is that these Buckeyes overachieved all season, rising as high as No. 4 in the AP rankings before a four-game losing streak at the end of the regular season birthed a nation of doubters. Ohio State rebounded to reach the Big Ten Conference championship game, where it lost to Illinois. No shame in that, but to follow up with such a clunker against Oral Roberts is disheartening to fans who thought this team had that special something.

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Turns out the something was not as special as many thought. Credit Holtmann for getting the Buckeyes this far, but it is fair to criticize the coaches for contributing to a confounding final kersplat. Actions have consequences, and the fallout from losing to a No. 15 seed will be enough to make Ohio State fans fume. Finishing 21-10 doesn't feel good when you become only the ninth No. 2 to lose to a No. 15 in tournament history.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD