Chris Holtmann didn’t even wait until the midpoint of the first half in Ohio State’s 66-54 loss to Indiana to determine he had seen enough from Duane Washington Jr.
Out of a timeout with 10:18 remaining before halftime, the head coach reinserted the sophomore guard into Saturday’s game, hoping to see more effort from him. On the first possession after the break in action, Jerome Hunter – the player Washington was guarding – tossed a post entry pass to De’Ron Davis. Washington turned his head toward Davis and took a swipe at the ball, whiffing his attempt. At that moment, Hunter took off toward the rim, caught a pass from Davis and was fouled by Kyle Young who had to leave his man to prevent a layup.
Seconds after the referee whistled, Holtmann walked down the sideline toward his team and jabbed his index finger, pointing at Andre Wesson who subbed in for Washington only 17 seconds after play resumed. Washington sat the remainder of the first half, ending it with two points on a pair of free throws and no other statistics recorded in five minutes.
“I just did not feel he was ready to play,” Holtmann said at a Monday afternoon press conference. “I felt like he was not prepared to play in a tough environment on the road. I just did not feel like his mind was where it needed to be, and it was pretty evident even in the short minutes that he played.”
Holtmann gave Washington another chance, starting him to open the second half.
An open jumper from Rob Phinisee not even two minutes after halftime was the breaking point. At the game’s first timeout, which came with 17:26 remaining in the game, Holtmann pulled Washington in favor of Luther Muhammad. Washington sat the rest of the game, ending it with only two points and one rebound in seven minutes.
“I thought his effort was really poor, and I thought his attention to detail was really poor,” Holtmann said. “I said to him, ‘I’m wondering where are you? You've got to be more locked in than what you are. We need more from you right now.’”
Ever since Washington has returned from a rib injury that sidelined him two games in the middle of December, he hasn’t come close to his level of performance from early in the season. Even before Saturday, Washington was struggling offensively.
In nine games before the injury, he connected on 52 percent of his shots from the field, including 53.7 percent of his 3-pointers. With a more diverse offensive game than most of his teammates, Washington became the Buckeyes' most efficient three-level scorer. Even though he was hitting outside shots at unsustainable rates, there was a feeling that he'd be able to find a consistent medium. That hasn't happened, though. Washington has shot just 28.9 percent from the field and 28 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in five games since returning to the court, not reaching 40 percent shooting in any game.
Ohio State's record before his injury? A spotless 9-0. Since returning? Just 1-4.
"When we've played well, he's usually played well,” Holtmann said Monday on his weekly radio show on 97.1 The Fan.
Combining the decline in offensive production with the effort and defensive issues that led to his benching, it's clear much more is expected of Washington from the coaches than what he has offered recently.
“I think he's a young kid – he's 19 years old – that's got some growing to do,” Holtmann said. “But he's got a great attitude, great approach, wants to do it well. There's some hard lessons, I think, for him moving forward. Hopefully he embraces them.”
Washington's first opportunity to show progress will come on Tuesday night when the Buckeyes face Nebraska in a game they can't afford to lose. Already 1-4 in the Big Ten and riding a four-game losing streak, a loss to the sub-.500 Cornhuskers would be devastating to Ohio State.
An improved Washington would aid the team's chances of a bounce-back performance. With Holtmann hinting Monday at the possibility of a CJ Walker-DJ Carton starting backcourt, though, Washington could come off the bench against Nebraska.
“I would think more in general, just increased effort, attention to detail and really, in practice as much as anything,” Holtmann said. “I think that'll translate into games. He is important to this group. His preparation and how he prepares to play, he's not the only one, but that has to continue to grow and improve. He's a sophomore, so you have a little bit of higher standard for guys that have been in your program for a year.”
Ohio State shouldn't necessarily need Washington to return to form to beat Nebraska on Tuesday, but it certainly would help alleviate some of the mounting issues the team faces.