Ohio State looks for answers after Indiana delivers first decisive defeat of season
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Ohio State had lost other games this season, but neither of them was quite like this.
In its first true road game, the Buckeyes walked into a Xavier buzzsaw but kept things close, made it a one-possession game in the final 20 seconds and fell 71-65. Six days later, in the Fort Myers Tip-Off championship game, a 3-pointer at the buzzer gave No. 23 Florida a 71-68 win.
Thursday night at Assembly Hall, Indiana needed no dramatics or last-second heaves. It only needed Trayce Jackson-Davis.
With last year’s honorable mention All-American dominating the paint on both ends for the Hoosiers, Ohio State had few answers and dropped a 67-51 loss to Indiana that was as decisive as it was surprising. An Ohio State team that ranked seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com ran smack-dab into an Indiana defense with the best two-point field goal percentage defense in the country and found no room to work.
The numbers tell the story. Indiana outscored Ohio State 38-10 in the paint. Of Indiana’s 25 made field goals, 23 came from inside the 3-point line. Jackson-Davis led all scorers with 27 points and was 11-for-17 from the field, all from two-point range. Indiana won by 16 points despite going 2 for 15 (13.3%) from 3-point range.
The Buckeyes? Of their 52 field goal attempts, only 25 came from inside the 3-point range (48.1%). Of those 25, only eight went in (32.0%). After halftime, the Buckeyes made eight shots, and seven of them were 3-pointers.
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Everywhere Ohio State looked, Indiana was there. And if the Buckeyes got near the rim, Jackson-Davis was there to clean things up, finishing with five blocks.
“They certainly controlled the paint, both offensively and defensively,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought E.J. got bodied and knocked off a couple of his shots, but he’s also got to kind of play through, not contact, but play to score the ball. In general, we’ve got to find ways to put him in better spots but the paint was the difference for sure.
“I just think having Trayce on the back line presents a lot of problems, his ability to play on the back line and do some things.”
In three prior games against Ohio State, Jackson-Davis had scored 36 total points and blocked five shots. This time, Ohio State couldn’t do much to stop him or challenge him. Second-year center Zed Key got a crack, but finished with 2 points, three rebounds, one assist, one turnover and two fouls in only 15 minutes.
“He’s a great player,” Key told The Dispatch in the hallway outside of the visitors’ locker room. “All credit goes out to him. He had a great performance against us.”
Ohio State’s offense landed a few early blows, and the Buckeyes led 15-7 with 12:08 to play in the first half. They would score 36 points in the final 32:08 and a season-low 21 after halftime. Through the first 11 games, the Buckeyes hadn’t scored fewer than 31 points during a second half or 26 during a first half.
“I thought we missed some open shots, but I thought also that we just weren’t able to impose ourselves enough through the paint on drives,” Holtmann said. “Got bodied up on drives. Put ourselves in too difficult of a position at times driving the ball and getting the ball tipped or blocked. I didn’t think our rim decisions were great. All things we’ve got to work on in film and clean up for sure.”
Meechie Johnson points to lack of connectivity for loss
Statistically, this was the best defense Ohio State had faced so far this season. Johnson, though, said there was more to blame for Ohio State’s offensive struggles than just the Hoosiers.
“We just wasn’t connected out there,” he said. “Honestly. It was a tough team. Great defense. It was loud in their arena. There was times where coach was calling plays where we wasn’t supposed to be. Overall, we just really wasn’t connected. That’s how I feel. As we go back and watch the tape and learn, we won’t let stuff like that happen again.”
Key agreed with Johnson’s assessment.
“Especially on the offensive end, we couldn’t really get into our sets,” he said. “We weren’t connected as a group. The whole team wasn’t really connected. We were all on different pages. We’ve just got to be better next time.”
Neither player had an exact answer for why that was the case, which might indicate that it was a night where the reason was Indiana.
Johnson said Holtmann’s postgame message was succinct.
“We’ve got to be better,” he said. “We’ve got to be tougher. We’ve got to be more connected. We’ve got to prepare better. We’ve got to be dialed in on everything that’s going on. We’re going to continue to go into hostile games like this. It’s important we keep our composure.”
E.J. Liddell suffers through a second rough outing
He still finished in double figures to keep his streak alive, but for a second straight night Liddell struggled to get his offensive game going. After going 2 for 14 from the floor at Nebraska, Liddell followed that up by going 3 for 12 for 11 points with a team-high nine rebounds and three turnovers in 32 minutes against the Hoosiers. For the first time this season, he did not record an assist.
In his last two games, Liddell is 5 for 26 (19.2%) from the floor, 2 for 10 (20.0%) from 3 and has combined for fewer points (21) than in his final game before the break (28 against Wisconsin on Dec. 11).
“I think in general, he maybe doesn’t quite look the same but also tonight they really defended him well,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get him in a few better spots and I think he’s got to impose himself a little bit more in terms of some of the effort plays that he can make to create some easy baskets. That’s the biggest challenge for him right now.”
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Second-year guard Meechie Johnson Jr., who had seven points in 18 minutes against Indiana, said the Buckeyes have enough talent around Liddell to pick him up when he’s struggling.
“A lot is going to run through E.J.,” Johnson said. “He’s going to have a tough night like this. It’s important for a lot of us to step up and be ready for those moments. There’s no excuses. When moments like this happen you’ve got to be ready.”
Sunday at Nebraska, they were. Thursday at Indiana, answers were hard to come by.
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Liddell’s far from the only player to see his production dip since returning from the layoff. In the two games since returning, senior wing Justin Ahrens has scored 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting from 3-point range. Key pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds at Nebraska but has scored nine points in the two games on 3-for-7 shooting after averaging 10.4 points through the first 10 games.
Graduate forward Kyle Young made his return after missing the Nebraska game due to non-COVID illness but managed only three points and two rebounds with two turnovers in 17 minutes.
“I thought he gave us good minutes,” Holtmann said. “He just didn’t quite look himself yet. Obviously we need him. He’s going to be really important for us.”
Each team’s situation is different, and Holtmann said he consulted with numerous coaches who endured lengthy COVID pauses last season about the best way to pick up where they left off upon returning. Ohio State rallied for a gutsy win at Nebraska last time out, but did not seem to have the same amount of juice against the Hoosiers.
Whether that’s a product of Indiana’s defense or residual effects from the layoff is an open question.
“I don’t know,” Holtmann said. “It’s so hard to say. I certainly don’t want to look at that. I think there’s correctable things outside of that. That’s really not in our control, whatever that is. We can get in a little bit better shape, and that’s something we can control. Those guys that were off can get in better shape, and that’s probably the thing I’m looking at the most is how do we do that without getting the guys that were out for an extended period of time, it affecting their legs.”
Northwestern, which is 1-4 against top-200 KenPom teams this season, comes to Value City Arena on Sunday.
“I just think we’ve got to get some guys rested. We’ve got to learn how we can do some things better. Bottom line is, tonight our offense really failed us. I thought defensively we didn’t play as smart as we needed to all the time, but tonight – which it’s really not been all year – but tonight was really about our lack of offensive performance.” – Holtmann
“This is a gym I always wanted to play in. It’s crazy because I was at y hotel before we came here watching 2013 Indiana with Victor Oladipo playing Aaron Craft and we won here. Me and Malaki was watching that game earlier and we was like, ‘Man, this is about to be a hostile environment. Can’t wait.’ Definitely the best gym I’ve played in in college. It was a good atmosphere and great experience.” – Johnson