Improved paint decisions could help Ohio State turn offense around, snap losing streak
The particulars change, but the same type of play has started to haunt Ohio State.
Often, it starts with the ball on the wing, perhaps in the hands of primary playmakers Justice Sueing or Brice Sensabaugh. In an effort to create an offensive opportunity, someone puts the ball on the floor, drives toward the lane and sees some glimmer of daylight. Or, sometimes, none is to be found as an extra defender appears, cuts off the opportunity and forces the Buckeye to pick up his dribble.
It’s here, more than perhaps anywhere else on offense, that coach Chris Holtmann feels the Buckeyes are sputtering during what has become a four-game losing streak. Entering Wednesday night’s game at Nebraska, it’s been a focus during practice and film sessions.
“We’ve got to make better paint decisions,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to see the open man better and quicker and make cleaner reads in those situations when we’ve created a help situation. That’s the biggest thing for us right now.”
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Ohio State’s assist numbers help illustrate the point. After dishing out double-digit helpers in seven straight games, the Buckeyes haven’t had more than eight in any of their last three games and bottomed out with their lowest total in years. During last Thursday’s home loss to Minnesota, the Buckeyes finished with only five assists, their fewest since having four in a loss to Michigan State on Feb. 23, 2016.
As Big Ten teams adjust to an Ohio State offense that was rated No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, it’s time for the Buckeyes to adjust back.
“That’s just a matter of being poised and being under control,” Sueing, who has seven assists and 10 turnovers during the losing streak, said. “Sometimes we can get a little sped up, which usually leads to anyone making a poor decision in the paint. It’s just a repetition thing we’re going to continue to work on. It’s just a matter of repetition and mentally preparing for that stuff, especially as defenses start to shift and try to make more of those things happen.”
To be fair, not all of Sueing’s turnovers have come from making poor post decisions. And Ohio State’s 41 turnovers during this losing streak are the fewest it has committed during any of the four losing streaks of at least four games during Holtmann’s six seasons.
The problem is that, once teams bring a double team or cut off the offensive drive, it frequently forces someone into a difficult, contested shot rather than a pass to an open teammate. Or, as it has in the last two games, it can lead to a blocked shot.
Last Thursday, Minnesota blocked six shots. Three days later, Rutgers blocked eight Ohio State shots. The Buckeyes missed 70 shots in those games but had 14 of them (20.0%) blocked.
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That’s nearly double Ohio State’s rate of shots blocked for the season. Opponents have blocked 10.5% of Ohio State’s attempts, the 95th highest mark in the nation.
“We have to be able to find and see the open guy and see the kick-out and then maybe the one-more (pass),” Holtmann said. “We have to get better at that than what we’ve been. We’ve always been a pretty heavy dribble-drive team this year and certainly at times in years past. That allows us to get to the free-throw line, allows us to get to the paint but it also puts a premium on good paint decisions.”
It’s an area where Holtmann said a player like E.J. Liddell particularly showed improvement during his final year at Ohio State. As his offensive usage rate climbed each year, Liddell’s assist rate did as well, and as a junior Liddell shot a career-best 54.0% from two-point range and was second on the team with 80 assists. He assisted on 17.0% of Ohio State’s made shots while he was on the court, a career high.
Freshman Bruce Thornton, who has six assists and six turnovers during this four-game stretch, has an assist rate of 17.3 but a turnover rate of 19.4. Sensabaugh and Sensabaugh, the team’s two leading scorers, also have higher turnover than assist rates. Sueing is at 13.3% for assists and 15.7% for turnovers while Sensabaugh is at 10.3% and 14.5%, respectively.
“That’s where a guy like E.J. really grew in his last year, his ability to make paint reads, paint decisions, see help and then deliver the ball on time, on target,” Holtmann said. “That’s where some of our guys have to grow. They’ve done a good job of creating help but they have to make better reads.”
Up next: a Nebraska team that ranks 49th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency but is 200th in defensive turnover percentage (18.4%) and 259th in shot blocking percentage (7.9%).