What has gone wrong for Ohio State on this three-game losing streak?
Sean McNeil was supposed to be in the postgame interview room one week before he actually was.
On Jan. 5, the West Virginia graduate transfer took a busted play and buried what, for the next 30 seconds, was positioned to be the game-winning 3-pointer to send No. 24 Ohio State past No. 1 Purdue. Instead, McNeil’s shot with 41 seconds left would be the last celebratory moment for the Buckeyes in what would be an eight-day streak of misery that culminated Jan. 12 with a home loss to previously winless in Big Ten play Minnesota.
It was there that McNeil found himself, not talking about a game-winning shot or season-defining win but a third straight loss.
“We played three good teams in the last three games,” McNeil said. “Give credit to all them, but obviously there’s some things we’ve got to fix internally and get ready to go beat a good Rutgers team up there.”
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After beating Northwestern on New Year’s Day to move to 10-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten, Ohio State lost to Purdue, fell at Maryland three days later and then to Minnesota one week after the Purdue game. In all three cases, Ohio State’s opponent entered the game fresh off at least one loss.
In the cases of the Terrapins and Golden Gophers, the losing streaks were more significant. Maryland had dropped two straight Big Ten games and five of its previous seven games before Sunday’s 80-73 win at the Xfinity Center, while Minnesota was 0-4 in conference play, had lost two straight and seven of its prior nine games before winning, 70-67, at Value City Arena.
A key injury has been a factor. Ohio State played without starting center Zed Key for all but the first four minutes against Purdue after he suffered a left shoulder sprain. The injury kept him out of the Maryland game and although he returned and played 29:41 off the bench against Minnesota, coach Chris Holtmann said afterward he probably pushed the big man too far too soon.
Against Maryland and Minnesota, teams that entered their games with Ohio State a combined 1-7 in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes led for a combined 8:36. Of that, only 1:42 was against the Golden Gophers.
It gets no easier. The Buckeyes now go to Rutgers to face a Scarlet Knights team they defeated in controversial fashion to open Big Ten play.
Here’s a look at what’s gone wrong during the last three games for the Buckeyes on each side of the court.
High-powered offense suddenly struggling
Even as the Buckeyes have dealt with late-game losses and seen their defense produce fluctuating effort levels, the offense has continued to hum at a high level. Ohio State has remained a top-five national team in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, and for a period the Buckeyes have even climbed into the No. 1 spot.
That hasn’t translated to wins lately, and in the last two games especially the Buckeyes have seemed to be pressing offensively. Ohio State shot 49.2% from the floor and 37.8% from 3-point range through its first 14 games but has gone 48 for 119 (40.3%) overall in the losses to the Terrapins and Golden Gophers.
Against Minnesota, Ohio State shot 37.5% from the field, its lowest total since it went 21 for 58 (36.2%) in a loss at Maryland on Feb. 27, 2022. Ball movement seems to have dried up: Ohio State had assists on 47.2% of its field goals through the first 14 games but totaled only 13 assists in its last two games. That equates to a 27.1% assist rate, and the five assists against Minnesota were the fewest in a game since the Buckeyes had four in an 81-62 home loss to Michigan State on Feb. 23, 2016.
Those Spartans finished the year ranked No. 26 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Minnesota is No. 150 in that category this season.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the scoring hasn’t been as balanced as it was. Brice Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing have taken 52.1% of the team’s shots (62 of 119) during the last two games but were taking 36.8% of Ohio State’s shots entering the Maryland game. With ball movement stagnating compared to earlier in the season, and the Buckeyes needing someone to make a play, that is falling heavily on the shoulders of Sensabaugh and Sueing.
And with all that in mind, Ohio State has put together its two worst two-point shooting performances on the season in its last two losses. This is where Key’s absence is particularly felt, as the big man was 5 for 6 against the Gophers from inside the arc while the rest of the team was 13 for 44 (29.5%) from two. Ohio State was a combined 18 for 51 (35.3%) from two against Minnesota, its lowest total since going 13 for 39 (33.3%) in a 66-64 loss at Rutgers on Feb. 9, 2022.
In summary: as the Buckeyes have adjusted to the loss and return of Key, ball movement has dried up, two-point shots aren’t falling and most of the shots are coming from two players.
Defense headed in the wrong direction
It’s never seemed realistic that this year’s team could put together an elite defense, but a roster of versatile players who should be capable of switching most positions and using their positional length to frustrate opponents is again struggling to string together consistent performances.
As Ohio State hosted Purdue, it had climbed to No. 65 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Now, the Buckeyes will go to Rutgers ranked No. 98 nationally, allowing 99.4 points per 100 possessions. Although the national ranking is better than last year, that’s actually a narrowly worse efficiency score than last year (99.3).
Thirteen members of last year’s Sweet 16 were among the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The outliers: Michigan at 74, Purdue at 93 and Miami at 107. The Hurricanes were the only team to advance to the Elite Eight.
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Assistant coach Jack Owens, who oversees the defense, spoke with reporters Friday morning. He repeated a few key phrases throughout the press conference: Ohio State has to stick to its defensive principles and be better at sustaining its effort.
“The thing is, throughout the course of the game we’re doing some good things,” he said. “Sustaining effort in what we’re doing is where we’re at. That’s what we have to do. It’s not just one thing. We have to continue to sustain an effort.”
Maryland was shooting 36.8% from the floor in Big Ten games but shot 38.5% against Ohio State. Minnesota was shooting 47.2% in its first four Big Ten games but shot 50.0% against Ohio State. With Key working his way back into form, the Terrapins became the first team to make more than half of their two-point field goals against the Buckeyes since North Carolina on Dec. 17.
The Gophers were 20 for 32 (62.5%) inside the 3-point line against Ohio State.
“We gotta really lock in on that part of games,” captain Isaac Likekele said. “We can’t win allowing people to score 70 points. We’ve got a few wins outscoring teams, but when you get to this Big Ten, night after night you’re playing against talented teams. You need to get stops.”
In Big Ten play, Ohio State is seventh in scoring defense (68.8 points allowed per game), seventh in field goal percentage defense (43.2%) and seventh in defensive rebounding (34.6 per game). That’s the definition of the middle of the pack in the 14-team Big Ten.
Lack of continuity has undoubtedly been an issue. Likekele missed three games for personal reasons, depriving the Buckeyes of one of their primary defenders. Without Key, freshman Felix Okpara battled Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey but was limited by foul trouble and played only 12:22 against Maryland before logging a season-low 6:31 off the bench against the Gophers.
But much like last season, Ohio State is still seeking that elusive defensive consistency. The Buckeyes don’t turn teams over very much and are 34th nationally in effective field goal percentage, but an inability to get stops has helped send them to a 2-6 record in games decided by 11 points or fewer.
A few more stops, especially on nights where the offense isn’t clicking, would go a long way toward changing that number.
“As a fairly young team with older guys who are still jelling, it’s unfortunate Zed got hurt,” Owens said. “It’s unfortunate Ice wasn’t around for 3-4 games. If we can continue to stay the course and stay together, we’ll be fine.”
The answer to that “if” could determine the course of the season. Asked what gives him confidence the Buckeyes can turn things around, Holtmann had a short answer after the Minnesota loss.
“That’ll get decided here in this next month,” he said.