It’s all so unfamiliar. The amount of losses, the late-season collapse, just uncharacteristic play all the way around. This isn’t the Ohio State basketball team people have become accustomed to.
Since the dawn of the Thad Matta era, the Buckeyes’ have won with a frequency not seen in generations. Suddenly, the months between the end of the football season and beginning of spring practice served a purpose. Buckeye fans became enthralled with their basketball team and turned Value City Arena, a maligned stale facility, into a worthy homecourt advantage.
The boasting has disappeared. With the calendar already reaching March, Ohio State sports eight losses with all of them coming in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are placed in the middle of the conference and destined for a mid-tier NCAA Tournament seed.
Ohio State enters the final week of the regular season in sixth place in the Big Ten. It hasn’t finished that low since Matta’s first season when it was banned from the Big Dance. For Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., next weekend’s senior sendoff won’t have the pizzazz they expected when the Buckeyes were 15-0 just two short months ago.
Sunday’s uninspiring loss at Indiana was the team’s second consecutive loss after repairing their resume during the month of February. Incredibly, this isn’t the first tailspin in a season most would rather forget.
“We were rolling until Thursday night,” Matta said after the Hoosiers’ 72-64 victory. “Right now, I think that we are really lacking in confidence and toughness in terms of playing through situations. Those are things that some how, some way, we have to get corrected.”
At this point, it might be too late. It’s not like these are new flaws appearing. Instead, it’s the reemergence of mistakes Ohio State’s made all season. Just when it looked like everything was corrected, a horrid two-game stretch proved, yes, even the Buckeyes can suffer down years.
In an age where parity dominates college basketball, look around at blue-blood programs such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana. No one is immune to offbeat seasons.
Ohio State’s won 20 games every season Matta’s been at the helm, advanced to two Final Fours and been crowned with countless conference championships. Matta’s elevated the Buckeyes to elite status, and with that come outsized expectations.
“Thad really doesn’t get the attention or the credit that he should,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. “He is a great coach. That guy will be in the Hall of Fame at some point. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. I have tremendous, tremendous respect for him and what he does.”
Five losses in six games in January were the first signs this season’s team might not be Final Four caliber like so many in recent memory. But if any lingering confidence existed, the past week certainly wiped it away.
A season sweep at the hands of Penn State, which has five conference wins, is inexcusable. As is a loss to resurgent Nebraska just weeks after beating the Cornhuskers by nearly 30 points. Sunday also can be slapped into the bad loss column. Assembly Hall is Assembly Hall, but this is not a classic Indiana team. The Hoosiers were without Noah Vonleh and played horribly in the game’s first 10 minutes.
One of the nation’s best defenses has abandoned the Buckeyes. They allowed too many threes last week, sent opponents to the free throw line too often and rarely got stops when they needed one. When you lack any semblance of a consistent offense, a sluggish defense quickly spells doom.
Sunday presented an especially anemic offense. Ohio State didn’t make a single three-pointer for the first time since January 2004, and 24 of their 25 field goals came in the paint. They also missed several bunnies and only converted 14 of 23 free throw attempts.
“I think we had to get in the lane because we couldn’t make a shot,” Matta said. “We were 0-for-11 from three. We were short from there all day. We had some good looks, they just didn’t go down. It was just one of those days.”
With Vonleh, a projected NBA lottery pick, in street clothes, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald got in foul trouble, ending any potential advantage down low. But that wasn’t where the stupidity stopped.
LaQuinton Ross, two weeks after being ejected, picked up another deadball technical, which coincided with Indiana scoring 16 straight points and ending the first half on a 21-5 run. The Hoosiers erased an eight-point Ohio State lead and led 33-25 at halftime.
The Buckeyes were never tied or leading again.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” Matta said. “We missed layups and we missed free throws, and then all of a sudden, we clammed up and we lost our defensive intensity. We lost our juice on the defensive end. We had held them to only 12 points with eight minutes to go in the second half. When Yogi Ferrell hit a three, that’s when I knew we were in trouble. Even when we weren’t particular scoring well, we never got our defense to where it needed to be.”
Ohio State did have second-half opportunities. Similar to Thursday night’s mess at Penn State, though, Craft turned the ball over at critical junctures. On multiple occasions, he drove to the basket only to meet taller players who neutralized any scoring threat. The same story played out in January.
Craft finished with three turnovers and shot 2-of-11 from the field.
“I honestly don’t know the answer right now. He drove and tried to get up on the rim, but he just struggled to score today,” Matta said. “He did some good things in the first half, but shots just didn’t go down for him. He’s trying to win, he’s trying to make plays. Unfortunately, he just had some bad bounces.”
Bad bounces could be a contagious disease, because it’s plagued Ohio State’s entire team. Still, sullen faces or not, the Buckeyes refuse to buy into the Doom’s Day theories. After all, the current roster’s experienced being written off before only to rise up and advance to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.
But all the confidence and bravado could be acting as a masking agent for denial.
Said Matta: “We have to look ourselves in the mirror and get back to being basketball players.”