Ohio State was supposed to have an identity.
Not the most talented team in the country and far from the oldest team around, it had to win with defense and an edge. It needed to be tough. Instead, a lack of that very intangible, Chris Holtmann and his players believe, is quite possibly the main reason that their season has gone sideways so quickly.
“Bottom line, we just have got to find a way to play tougher and smarter,” Holtmann said on Wednesday. “And that may seem like an oversimplification, but there's a lot that goes into it.”
That didn’t necessarily come as a revelation. He and his players have openly mentioned that as an issue for a few weeks.
Immediately after the Buckeyes’ loss to Indiana, Holtmann said the results won’t change unless they play “smarter and tougher and sounder in a lot of ways.” A couple days later, while preparing to face Nebraska and eventually end a four-game losing streak, Kyle Young reiterated that message.
“Just getting our toughness back, that's got to be our identity,” Young said a little over a week ago.
Instead of responding to those messages, though, Ohio State continued to crumble.
Against Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes allowed a season-high 90 points in a 14-point road loss. After the defeat, during which the Nittany Lions had more rebounds and steals while shooting 53.7 percent from the field, Holtmann said it was his team’s worst defensive performance of the season. It would be hard to argue that point, which had to leave those inside Ohio State’s locker room with a defeated feeling in the midst of a season during which Ohio State had thrived on that end of the court even as its offense declined.
“What I've got to do as a coach is honestly figure out who our toughest guys are and roll with those, and the other ones are going to have to learn in practice before they can play.”– Chris Holtmann
To Holtmann and his players, it all goes back to toughness. Mental or physical toughness? Holtmann doesn’t feel like he has to pick only one of them.
“I think it's a lot of both. I think we've struggled in both areas right now,” Holtmann said. “The ability to play physical, and whether that's sustain a blockout or get a challenged rebound. Some of it is a younger team lacking some physical strength or maybe overall size. But more than anything, it's been I just think we are lacking in really both areas. A resilient mindset that you need, which is what you're talking about, the mental approach, the ability to move on to the next play and make the next right play and do it with a toughness about you. And certainly there have been physical, the ability to sustain an effort, to play physical, to finish through contact, all the things that we have to improve in.”
As that has become clear to those both inside and outside the program, the losses have mounted.
Just barely over a month ago, Ohio State had only one loss and beat No. 15 Kentucky in Las Vegas. It was another impressive win for a top-10 program that had risen as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press top-25 poll. Since that day, Ohio State has gone 1-5 and fallen out of the rankings.
“This game takes a lot of toughness, and that's one thing that we started off well,” Carton said. “We were a very tough team at the beginning. It showed in our defensive numbers. Now we've kind of lost the identity of toughness and stuff like that. I think we're a tough team, but we need to be tougher more consistently across the board, across games and stuff like that.”
Holtmann, though, said he thinks it’s a “valid point” to wonder whether the Buckeyes were truly challenged to the point to where they could have ever “definitively” called themselves a tough team, even during the first two months of the season.
Yes, they beat Kentucky on a neutral court by six points and Cincinnati at home by eight points. But two of their wins against name-brand opponents – No. 9 Villanova and North Carolina – were blowouts that came by 25 points apiece, and though the 106-74 demolition of Penn State was impressive, it didn't exactly showcase toughness or an ability to buckle down late in the game. The win versus the Tar Heels has been devalued as the season has progressed, yet it remains the Buckeyes’ only road victory.
“We just didn't get tested in that way,” Holtmann said. “We didn't get tested on the road in that way. We didn't get tested in neutral situations in that. As soon as we got into Big Ten play, we've gotten tested in it, for sure.”
Beyond toughness, Carton said he thinks “the whole overall team chemistry just needs to become better” among those playing together on the floor. As a freshman, he hasn’t ever gone through a full college basketball season. But even without extensive experience, he said he notices differences between the connectivity of the team right now and the passion with which it played together earlier in the season.
Carton, a first-year point guard averaging 10.1 points and 3.1 assists per game, said that’s “the biggest thing that we need to switch up.”
“I think that's one thing we lost. I think we lost that swagger we had,” Carton said. “And I think the team kind of got lost and individualized a little too much. So I think just us being more connected as a team on and off the court will help. Just sometimes I feel like we're not connected out there, and it just doesn't feel the same as it did in the beginning.”
Kaleb Wesson, an upperclassmen who experienced a similar January lull a year ago, noted he has seen some of the same things his teammate referenced.
“You see it little by little, and then you get this stretch where they start losing games and people start getting frustrated,” Wesson said. “But when you're winning, people overlook things like that, little frustrations that you get. Like DJ said, we're so close to where we can have those discussions after a game and nobody take it to heart and you move on. I feel like that's how we're going to respond.”
What would Ohio State responding well on the court show? Toughness. And what, based on their admissions, have they not showed enough? Toughness.
For that reason, the upcoming stretch – beginning with Minnesota on Thursday night – matters a great deal to the ultimate results of this season. It’s manageable, even for a team reeling as much as this one. The Buckeyes will take on the Golden Gophers at home, followed by a road tilt with Northwestern and another home game versus Indiana. In all three games, Ohio State will likely enter as the favorite.
Sitting at 2-5 in the Big Ten, Holtmann’s team needs conference wins. So in these upcoming games, he might ride those he feels can play with the intangible he believes the group needs most.
“What I've got to do as a coach is honestly figure out who our toughest guys are and roll with those, and the other ones are going to have to learn in practice before they can play,” Holtmann said.
What’s currently a weakness won’t turn into a positive identity in only one practice or one game. But enough time remains between now and the postseason to see visceral progress. It just needs to come soon.
Ohio State, rudderless in the past month, can’t afford to take any longer to get the direction of this season pointed in the right direction.
“The only way I think you get tougher is you do tough things on a regular basis,” Holtmann said. “And some groups are different, right? Some groups are older. Some groups you just naturally have some tougher and tougher-minded guys. I think that's still a question that we have to answer. I'm not sure it was answered early. But right now, it's certainly a question that's in front of us that we've not answered in a positive way.”