Coaches at all levels of basketball set attainable goals. Chris Holtmann, in his third year leading the Buckeyes, is no different.
Like Ryan Day, who stood at midcourt during Ohio State basketball’s 62-59 loss to Minnesota on Thursday and told a fired-up Schottenstein Center than he won’t let the football team forget about the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson, Holtmann intended to use what happened last year as motivation for the 2019-20 season. As Duane Washington Jr. revealed before the season began, the coaching staff pulled four numbers from the 2018-19 season and plastered them all over the place, from the locker room entrance to screens in the weight room.
Each number had a meaning: 8 (place in the Big Ten standings), 12 (losses to Big Ten opponents), 15 (total losses) and 193 (national ranking in turnover percentage).
“Our expectations for this team, and really for Ohio State in general, is really high,” Washington said in late October. “For (Holtmann) and us as well, we just look at it like that wasn't good enough. We've got to figure out a way to do better this year, and we've been working really hard.”
Not only were those four numbers reachable, but based on the preseason general consensus that had the Buckeyes as a team positioned to finish safely in the upper half of the Big Ten, they were baseline expectations. Though this is an inexperienced team, it was also viewed entering the season as possibly the most talented of the Holtmann era.
But after Thursday’s three-point home loss, the Buckeyes are in danger of falling short of all four numerical goals as they begin to look like a team about to find itself on the NCAA tournament bubble that should be much more.
“We've just got to figure it out. That's the only thing that I can pretty much say,” CJ Walker said following the latest loss. “We did have it rolling those first 10, 11 games and we just somewhere hit a slump, so we've just got to get out of it.”
It’s hard to describe this as a slump anymore. More than anything, it has turned into an avalanche with the Buckeyes seemingly unable to get what was such a bright season back on track.
Ohio State opened the season with nine straight wins and responded from its first loss of the season to Minnesota by rattling off a pair of victories, including one that came against Kentucky and moved it up to No. 2 in the Associated Press top-25 poll. Even at the time, that ranking seemed a bit rich. But almost everybody agreed Ohio State was one of the top teams in the Big Ten, thus making it a legitimate contender for a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Since beating the Wildcats, the Buckeyes nosedived all the way out of the top 25 on Monday and continued their precipitous drop on Thursday, dropping their sixth of the past seven games to fall to 12-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten.
“I think in some ways we took a step forward in some areas,” Holtmann said after the game. “Right now, we're just not good enough in enough areas to win in this league. But I thought our guys competed, battled, played hard, were locked in, had a few errors that happened that kind of get you in this league. We've got to find a way to answer the bell late in situations.”
A month ago, with the way his team was playing, nobody could have possibly imagined that Holtmann would be referencing any progress and positives after a heart-wrenching loss. But that’s what happens when a team crumbles over the course of a month in such a manner.
On Wednesday, Holtmann publicly challenged his team’s toughness. He openly wondered whether they had the necessary edge. And while there were glaring flaws against Minnesota, both Holtmann and the players who spoke after the game believed they responded well in that aspect, which only made the loss feel worse.
“We felt like we were competing, we were playing hard,” Kyle Young said. “Our energy was good. Our energy was better than it's been. That's why it's disappointing. It's a tough loss because we felt like we were in it, we felt like we were going to win that game.”
The issues laid elsewhere on Thursday.
For the majority of the game, Kaleb Wesson defended Minnesota stud center Daniel Oturu well, holding him to 11 points (4-of-12) and six rebounds, but he struggled on offense with two points, making 1-of-10 shots. Offensively, the Buckeyes couldn’t consistently get enough easy buckets, especially in the second half. They got to the line only three times in the second half and made just one 3-pointer in the latter 20 minutes. Young came through with six clutch points in the final three minutes, but he's never been a go-to scorer on a team that lacks one when Wesson doesn't have it going. Ohio State also committed 12 turnovers, which is better than its average, but comparatively Minnesota turned it over four times.
Despite those issues, the Buckeyes still had a chance to win it in the final minute.
Out of a timeout in a tie game with 38 seconds remaining, Ohio State ran a play that Walker said intended to get Washington open on a backdoor cut. The Golden Gophers closed that off, leading to an open 3-pointer from Kaleb Wesson, who missed the shot. On the other end, Marcus Carr used a ball screen to get space and drill a triple with 3.3 seconds remaining.
“It hurts. It hurt a lot,” Walker said. “Especially when you're in a game like that. Make the right plays the whole game and then that happens.”
Maybe the Buckeyes finally hit rock bottom. Maybe they can bounce back, salvage the regular season and make a run in the postseason. Just a year ago, they made the NCAA tournament based on their non-conference success despite their Big Ten woes, so it would be foolish to count them out.
But Ohio State didn’t enter the season intending to spend February and early March on the bubble. Holtmann certainly didn’t choose eight, 12, 15 and 193 as motivational numbers with the idea his team wouldn’t be on pace to improve on each of them by this point in the season.
If this is indeed a slump that the Buckeyes can turn around, they need to make it happen with haste.