Five Things: Ohio State Couldn’t Overcome Defensive Flaws Against Michigan, Lost Final “Four-Minute War,” Might See Wolverines Again

By Colin Hass-Hill on February 21, 2021 at 6:34 pm
CJ Walker

To an impartial viewer, the striking offense on display by both Ohio State and Michigan made Sunday afternoon’s game at the Schottenstein Center an absolute joy to watch. Chris Holtmann, of course, is the exact opposite of impartial.

“It's hard to feel that way being on the losing end of it,” Holtmann said.

His Buckeyes couldn’t pull out their eighth victory in a row. Rather, Michigan – only seven days removed from returning to action from a COVID-19-induced pause – left Columbus with a 92-87 win to improve to 16-1 on the season while furthering its stranglehold on the regular season Big Ten championship.

The result dropped Ohio State to 18-5 on the season.

“There's no question you lose a game, you're disappointed,” Holtmann said. “I think the expectation for us is that we were going to play well. I think in spots we did play well. We didn't finish the game well enough. I'm disappointed in myself. I thought our guys competed and battled. There's no question this team has an unbelievable connection. We play the right way offensively. I thought we had a great spirit about us. It's disappointing. That's the overall sentiment.”

Five takeaways from the five-point defeat:

Lost the last “four-minute war”

The term “four-minute war” has become a cliche Ohio State is fond of using. The Buckeyes view the four minutes between each media timeouts as individual “wars” they have to win. None is more important than the last one, during which many games – including Sunday’s – are won or lost.

The Buckeyes went into the final media break trailing by one with exactly four minutes left, and a little more than three minutes of action later they were down by eight.

“There was no pressure,” E.J. Liddell said. “Everybody just emphasized it was winning time, and in these situations we come out on top. We just had to execute, we get stops. That's just not how it went tonight.”

Not at all.

Hunter Dickinson, the behemoth of a 7-foot-2 big man, continued his strong night that ended with 22 points by draining a pair of free throws. Both teams subsequently missed shots to keep it a three-point game, and then Justice Sueing made his most costly play on a subpar individual day. The fourth-year junior forward decided to go behind his back with a pass that led to a turnover and and-one layup by Isaiah Livers to make it a six-point game.

“We were trying to get what we want,” Holtmann said. “I think we would've got it. He just made a read. I'm not quite sure why he made the read.”

Washington, coming to Sueing's defense, said: “One little mistake toward the game is not why we lost the game. Simple. So whoever says that, that's not the truth, and I'm going to have his back on that. (He) definitely could have played better, but everybody could have.”

He’s right. That mattered, especially in a game with both offenses lighting up the scoreboard by shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and nearly 50 percent from 3. Yet Ohio State also had an opportunity to respond quickly and get back on track.

Liddell knocked down a pair of free throws the next trip down the court. But over the course of the 2 minutes and 9 seconds following Sueing’s blunder, a six-point deficit turned into a nine-point deficit with just 23 ticks remaining. Over that stretch, Michigan scored on all four of its possessions against a defense that saw its struggles on full display at the worst possible time.

As Liddell said, the Buckeyes had to execute and get stops. They didn’t, so they lost.

Great offense, mediocre defense. Same ole story.

Ohio State has one of the best offenses in college basketball. It’s been that way all season, and as the postseason nears, it remains at peak power. Against a Michigan defense that entered the day ranked seventh in adjusted efficiency, the Buckeyes dropped 87 points while averaging 1.299 points per possession, the second-most in Big Ten play behind only last week’s game at Penn State.

Ridiculous offensive efficiency has been a constant. Unimpressive defense, however, has been a theme in a few too many games for comfort.

The Buckeyes have now allowed at least 82 points in three of their past five games, indicating this will be a team that has to win some shootouts when the postseason rolls around. Given that all three of its games against the other three top Big Ten teams – Michigan, Illinois and Iowa – have all seen both teams go into the 80s or 90s, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It is, however, a reality about this team. It’s just not built to have a dominant defense.

Ohio State had no problem going gangbusters offensively in any of those three games, beating both the Illini (87-81) and Hawkeyes (89-85). But an outstanding offensive showing couldn’t overcome the 92 points in 40 minutes put up by the Wolverines. 

“We can hang with them, and we showed that, but we just didn't make them miss,” Liddell said. “They were out there making tons of shots. We didn't make them miss. We made a lot of shots ourselves, but just giving up that many threes to them in the first half and not making them miss did it.”

The Wolverines scored 1.367 points per possession, by far the most by any Ohio State opponent this season. They hit 53.4 percent of their shots from the field, went 11-for-23 from 3 and knocked down 19-of-24 free throws, adding 10 offensive rebounds and 13 fast-break points.

Interestingly, the Buckeyes didn’t have their typically balanced attack at the forefront of their offense. Rather, Washington and Liddell scored 53 of Ohio State’s 87 points.

“They're a good defensive team,” Holtmann said. “I had no issue with our attack offensively. I thought we played really well offensively. We kind of took what was there, our guys made plays. They were obviously smothering Justin, and he wasn't able to get some freedom. Kyle, I thought they did a good job being physical with him on a couple of his deep post-ups, so he wasn't as effective as he normally was. A couple of our other guys had I think had a little bit of off nights. But, listen, I had no issue with our overall offensive attack. I thought it was really good. 

“It was the other end that didn't allow us to win the game.”

No great answers for Hunter Dickinson

Dickinson, at 7-foot-1, stands a half-foot taller than everybody who was active for Ohio State on Sunday. Given his length and skill that has made him a national championship contender’s leading scorer and defender, he’s a challenging matchup for all teams, including the Buckeyes.

The freshman center put up 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting and went 6-of-6 from the foul line. He added nine boards and two blocks in 29 minutes with a plus/minus of plus-10.

“He's a really good player,” Holtmann said. “I thought his length and size, at the end of the day, bothered us. So we'll have to figure out how to do a better job of that in certain situations. Give them credit. I think the shooting around him, the way they pass it and shoot it around him. They've got an older team that you can tell has played together and won.”

Holtmann added: “He's a load inside. I thought we were able to attack him in certain ways and make it difficult for him, but at the end of the day, I thought it just wasn't quite enough.”

He wasn’t a one-man show by any means. Michigan got double-figures scoring from four of his teammates, and he didn’t make any of his team’s 11 threes. Dickinson’s physicality down low, though, proved challenging to deal with. 

The Buckeyes have won games against top-level centers, including Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Iowa’s Luka Garza. So, it’s not as if they can’t win against the best bigs in college basketball. But, it’s still worth noting that a strong performance by a big man with a size advantage – Trevion Williams of Purdue twice, Liam Robbins of Minnesota once and Dickinson once – has been a constant in four of the Buckeyes’ five losses.

The Duane Washington-E.J. Liddell show

A little less than 10 minutes remained in Sunday’s game, and neither Washington nor Liddell were sitting beside their teammates on the front row of the bench. Rather, they positioned themselves alone in the far back corner. Washington wore a scarlet sweatshirt over his shoulder with a Gatorade towel covering his knees, and Liddell sat less than a foot away to his left with a towel around his neck.

In the moment, they looked like starting pitchers late in no-hitters sitting away from everybody else out of superstition to avoid anybody bothering them or getting them out of their groove.

Washington ended up smashing his previous career high of 23 points by putting up 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, and Liddell dropped 23 points. They combined for 53 points on 33 shots after combining for 44 points on 21 shots last week at Penn State. 

Notably, they continued to show important offensive advancements. Washington, who came into the day as a 38.2 percent shooter from 2, hit 7-of-8 shots from inside the arc. Liddell, despite forcing a missed 3 late, went 3-for-5 from behind 3-point line. Incredibly, he’s been a borderline 50-percent 3-point shooter for the past month.

“Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, so we're going to get back to work tomorrow,” Washington said.

They might meet again soon

Ohio State and Michigan enthralled the college basketball landscape on Sunday. Might they do so again in a few weeks?

The Wolverines are close to locking up a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, and the Buckeyes have a shot to clinch a double-bye in Indianapolis, too. It’s entirely possible they meet with a conference title on the line, or at least at some point during the tournament. Maybe they could even find each other in the NCAA tournament a little further down the line.

Either way, after Sunday’s game, nobody would turn down seeing Round 2.

Holtmann, quite naturally, says he hasn’t thought that far ahead or considered where Ohio State sits as a potential national title contender. He now turns his attention to the game at Michigan State on Thursday.

“My focus right now is going to be on areas that we can improve and grow and get better,” Holtmann said. “There are things that we can do as coaches to put our guys in a little bit better position defensively. That's really what I'm going to do. I think in terms of a measuring stick, I do think they're good. There's no question I think they're good and they're deserving of everything that comes their way, but my focus is our team. I think we're a good team, as well. There's no question we're a good team. But I think improvement, we need to be better come Thursday night in certain areas.”

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