BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Chris Holtmann, immediately after Ohio State’s loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 3, separated his team’s two-game skid from what happened to the Buckeyes a year ago, when they lost five straight games in the month of January. He didn’t view them as similar situations.
“I don't really, right now, look at it in that sense,” he said after losing to the Badgers. “We played two good teams. We have to play better down the stretch, and that's all we're looking at.”
At the time, Holtmann had reason to think that. His team hadn’t spiraled like it did a year ago. It had only dropped a pair of games.
Following a fourth loss in a row, with this one coming by a score of 66-54 on the road at Indiana, the comparisons are unavoidable, and Holtmann now admits he sees them.
“I think, sure, there are some similarities,” Holtmann said. “Young guys struggling through January. A little bit of injury issues. I'm sure there are some similarities. I've not spent a whole lot of time kind of looking at the two. But, yeah, I'm sure there are some similarities.”
Therein lies the problem.
Holtmann’s third season wasn’t supposed to resemble what happened last year. Not at all, really. And for a month and a half, it didn’t.
The 11th-ranked Buckeyes beat Cincinnati by eight, Villanova by 25, North Carolina by 25 and Penn State by 32, sending the hype train out of the station. A 13-point road loss to Minnesota sent Ohio State back to reality, but by topping Kentucky six days later, it seemed to have returned to its place as one of the best teams in the nation.
The Buckeyes had played themselves into analysts wondering whether this year’s team might have a legitimate shot to win the national championship. Even the morning before Ohio State faced Wisconsin, which came days after the loss to West Virginia, BetOnline gave the team the second-best odds to win the title (10/1), behind only Kansas and tied with Gonzaga and Duke.
Then, as suddenly as it could possibly happen, everything went off the rails, culminating in a fourth loss in a row on Saturday.
“We've got to find a way to figure some things out here quickly,” Holtmann said.
For Ohio State, figuring things out right now means finding a way to run a more effective and efficient offense.
Once a team that ranked in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, it has fallen to 24th and 41st, respectively, in just the past couple weeks.
Shooting percentages and turnover totals from each of the four straight losses tell a bleak story:
- Against West Virginia: 31.3 percent shooting, 33.3 percent from 3, 10-to-22 assist-to-turnover ratio
- Against Wisconsin: 40.4 percent shooting, 30 percent from 3, 8-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio
- Against Maryland: 31.3 percent shooting, 18.5 percent from 3, 12-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio
- Against Indiana: 32.7 percent shooting, 34.6 percent from 3, 8-to-16 assist-to-turnover ratio
The complete lack of offensive execution in what was once such a promising season has left Holtmann and his coaching staff searching for answers.
What do they change? How much do they change? How much can they even change at this point in the season?
“I think that's what we're going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out,” Holtmann said. “Not making wholesale changes at this point in the season. I think there are definitely some changes that need to be made. I think that's the pressing question right now.”
Among the multitude of offensive issues, turnovers once again rose to the top of the list of the quickly increasing list of problems on Saturday.
The Buckeyes had 16 turnovers against Indiana, splitting them up with eight in each half. DJ Carton led the team with a career-high seven turnovers, marking a continuation of a problem that has plagued him the entire season. During the four-game losing streak, the freshman point guard has had 27 points, 19 turnovers and nine assists.
His flashes of brilliance have come, but there haven’t been enough to offset his issues controlling the ball.
“I think we've got to try to get him in better positions,” Holtmann said. “As coaches, with all of our guys, we've just got to figure out the best way we can help our guys, and then some of it we're going to have to play through.”
Kaleb Wesson turned the ball over four times against Indiana, the second-most on the team. The junior big man had a rough time matching up with Joey Brunk, finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Unable to win important battles down low, he went 3-for-11 from the field, continuing his inconsistency finishing in the post.
“We were not efficient in passing or scoring in the low post here today,” Holtmann said. “We were really inefficient. We've got to get better at that collectively.”
With Wesson scuffling, getting outside shots to fall was a must. Andre Wesson led the Buckeyes with 15 points, going 3-for-6 from beyond the arc. The rest of the team hit only six of its 20 triples.
“I think we're struggling making shots,” Holtmann said. “We just have to get better across the board. I thought our senior was terrific today, as he's been. But we have to get more across the board.”
Just a few weeks ago, Ohio State’s four rotation guards – Carton, CJ Walker, Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. – were topping the 40 percent mark from beyond the 3-point arc, and recently they’ve all gone into funks.
Carton, unable to control the ball well enough, has the turnover bug. Walker has gone 1-for-10 from 3 in the past two games and has just five assists during the four-game slide. Muhammad’s 3-point stroke has evaporated, and he’s gone just 2-of-18 from beyond the arc in the past four games, making just four total field goals. Washington didn’t even take a shot in his eight minutes on Saturday, getting pulled in both halves due to poor defense. In the prior three games, he had made only 11 of his 38 shots.
“Some of it were concerns we had going into the season about were we going to take the next step in terms of our efficiency offensively, in particular our perimeters,” Holtmann said. “So it's not a complete surprise to me. I thought we had made some improvements. Obviously we've got to do a better job coaching them to make sure we are making improvements. At the end of the day, listen, it's not going to change until we make some of these real changes, and that's the bottom line.”
Throughout his first two years in Columbus, Holtmann earned a deserved reputation of getting the most out of his teams.
The past four games, he hasn’t been able to do so on offense. Ohio State won’t fix it all at once, but the coaching staff needs to figure out a way to maximize what many touted before the season as the most talented roster of the Holtmann era.
“Listen, it won't change until we change some of these things,” Holtmann said. “That's on all of us. It's not going to change until we play smarter and tougher and sounder in a lot of ways.”
The questions have only grown as the answers have shrunk. All eyes will be on Holtmann to see how he gets his team to respond against Nebraska on Tuesday.