For the first 13 games of the season, Ohio State looked like anything but a rebuilding team. Despite losing Keita Bates-Diop, the Big Ten player of the year, along with Jae-Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich, the Buckeyes jumped out to a 12-1 start that featured a couple impressive road wins.
Back for his second season as the team’s head coach, Chris Holtmann led his team to Cincinnati for the season opener, and the Buckeyes pulled out an eight-point win against the Bearcats. Eight days later, they traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, and beat Creighton by nine points. When Syracuse ended Ohio State’s season-opening win streak at six games, the Buckeyes bounced back with wins against Illinois and Minnesota, then beat UCLA as part of the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
Ohio State rose to as high as No. 13 in the AP top-25 poll, and it was the third-highest ranked Big Ten team as recently as last week. After back-to-back-to-back losses to Michigan State, Rutgers and Iowa, that’s about to change. Those expectations that Holtmann’s group blew away last year, then blasted through again for the first 13 games of this season, will decrease, too.
For a couple months, it looked like the Buckeyes might easily bypass the bridge season between last year’s success – a second-place finish in the Big Ten before landing them in the second round of the NCAA tournament – and next season, when they gain three top-50 recruits. Now, they’re back to battling for an NCAA tournament appearance, which looked extremely promising just one month ago, and a better-than-.500 record in the conference.
Teams can lose. Last year’s group dropped three games to a less-talented Penn State team. But Ohio State’s recent issues, though, don’t have an easy fix, and the deficiencies on the roster have become readily apparent.
Teams attack Kaleb Wesson to get him in foul trouble. They force the Buckeyes’ secondary contributors to beat them, and recently, there hasn’t been enough non-Wesson production on offense. The Buckeyes don't have many consistent offensive creators and lack size.
Keyshawn Woods, who dropped 19 points against Creighton earlier this season, scored nine combined points in the past three losses. C.J. Jackson put up back-to-back 20-plus-point games, then scored 10 points in each of the past three games and came off the bench on Saturday.
Kyle Young and Andre Wesson provide much scoring, and neither can create offense by themselves. Luther Muhammad has some slashing ability, but he can be careless with the ball at times and doesn’t often look to score unless called upon. Duane Washington Jr., who looked to be a sharpshooter off the bench in the first month of the season, has struggled with his shot recently.
Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow and Jaedon LeDee haven’t played consistent minutes this season, but each of them played at least 10 minutes versus Iowa. Jallow hit a pair of 3-pointers, Ahrens scored a career-high six points and LeDee added six points and four rebounds.
Ohio State hasn’t found any answers, so he’s looking into whether even those who have played sparingly for most of the year deserve more playing time.
“I think we're all kind of searching a little bit and trying to look for some life and energy from our bench and trying to give some guys an opportunity to be as effective as they can be,” Holtmann said.
Ten Buckeyes played in the opening half to mixed – often poor – results. Eight players committed turnovers in the first half, and the team finished the game with a season-high 20 turnovers.
Shots came in spurts in the first half, then just stop falling altogether in the latter 20 minutes. Ohio State shot 37.3 percent from the field compared to Iowa’s 45.5 shooting percentage.
“I just think their length, their length was an issue,” Holtmann said. “And I think their ability to use their size and their length. Maybe we missed some that we normally make or we would liked to have made. But I thought they were really active.”
The day before the team’s third loss in a row and fourth loss of the season, Holtmann stressed development. He implored patience.
That’s pertinent to long-term success. But even on Saturday, Holtmann was searching for answers, trying lineups and personnel pairings he hadn’t used much during close games the entire season. Easy answers aren’t readily evident for this team, which is precisely why Holtmann has begun to try out things he hadn’t previously.
With games against Maryland, Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan within the next two and a half weeks before a rematch against Rutgers and a game versus the Nittany Lions, Holtmann must relocate what led to success early in the season quickly. The Buckeyes are in the thick of the Big Ten, which Holtmann has called the best conference in the country for months, and they won’t have a break for a while.