Kneeled down like a catcher, Chris Holtmann suddenly belted out, “Move, move,” at the top of his lungs. When that didn’t work, he smacked the video board running mortgage advertisements on the front of the scorers table he was leaning on. Displeased, to say the least.
When the referees called a foul on Joe Wieskamp, he stood up, took a few steps toward the bench and gave assistant coach Ryan Pedon – who’s in charge of the offense – a look as if to say, “What in the world was that?” Seventeen seconds of play after the foul, Kyle Young missed a layup through contact and Holtmann again turned to the bench, putting his hand on his head to do the infamous “surrender cobra.”
By that point in Sunday’s top-10 matchup, with Ohio State trailing Iowa 18-11 after 11 minutes, he could tell something was wrong.
“We clearly did not have the emotional juice that we've typically had,” Holtmann said afterward.
Still, it seemed the Buckeyes had ample time to turn things around. Their first 11 minutes, while abysmal, accounted for just barely one-fourth of the action. After all, this is a team ranked No. 4 in the country with the third-most efficient offense in college basketball that had already beaten Iowa earlier in the month.
Except the turnaround never happened.
A four-minute stretch to open the second half allowed the Buckeyes to turn a 14-point deficit into a two-point deficit, and that was as close as they got. They were outscored 29-15 by the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes in the final 16:30, ultimately falling 73-57 for their third consecutive defeat.
“I think they clearly outplayed us, outperformed us, outcoached us,” Holtmann said. “We've got to get back to work.”
In an optimal world for his team, this is where Ohio State would be peaking. Illinois, college basketball’s fifth-ranked team, will travel to Columbus on Saturday for the Buckeyes' final regular-season game. Then comes the Big Ten tournament followed shortly thereafter by the NCAA tournament.
“Obviously, there's been plenty of good times. This is the first time where we've really hit significant struggles. We've got to respond here in this closing stretch.”– Chris Holtmann
For multiple months, constant improvement had been the Buckeyes’ defining trait.
The past eight days, however, threaten to send Ohio State into the postseason on a sour note. It has dropped consecutive games for the first time this season, falling to Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa in a little over a week. Holtmann and his players knew this would be a difficult portion of the schedule, and it’s proved to be even tougher than anticipated.
“Certainly, this is unlike any stretch I've ever been a part of, but what I'm hoping is it gets us better,” Holtmann said. “It'll be certainly a measure of our ability to handle disappointment and adversity and challenges. This is certainly the first time this season where we've had a stretch like this. And even though you look at it and you can anticipate struggle, it's certainly challenging in the moment. I think the balance between recognizing that we're playing a ridiculously hard closing stretch and then owning areas that we have to get better as coaches and players is the challenge for us moving forward. It's a balance because you don't want to excuse poor play by just sheer quality of competition, even though we recognize the quality of competition that we're playing. We've got to get better in areas. We've got to use this to help us get better.”
Holtmann, like any coach would, sees the need to get better at each of the main phases of the game.
“I just think in general, I just think we've not been good really on either end,” he said. “I thought offensively we were just really poor today. Just really poor. And I thought defensively we had pockets of good play, but not overall good enough.”
In particular, though, the struggles of an offense that had played so well up until this point perhaps lead to the most concern.
Ohio State didn’t have too many issues putting up points when it needed to throughout the season. Defensively, the challenges were persistent, but so often the Buckeyes overcame them by becoming one of the most prolific offenses in the country. While defense was a constant question mark, a dynamic offense was almost a given on most nights.
Ohio State followed up a 67-point performance on Thursday with a season-low 57 points on Sunday against an Iowa team not exactly known for stingy defense. It shot a respectable 45.1 percent from the field but made only 5-of-17 3-pointers, grabbed just two offensive boards – both by guards – and turned it over 13 times against a defense ranked dead last in the Big Ten in forcing turnovers.
Duane Washington Jr. managed seven points on 10 shots. The bench added only 10 points. E.J. Liddell recorded a team-high 15 points, yet scored only two points in the second half. Kyle Young, who was back in the lineup after missing the previous game with a concussion, had three points in 25 minutes; Holtmann said Young was “not his normal” self.
Out of the locker room after halftime, the Buckeyes showed some offensive life, with Justice Sueing knocking down a pair of corner threes and CJ Walker scoring on a pair of layups to spark a 14-2 run. But whatever pulse they had disappeared almost immediately.
Their 44-42 deficit turned into a 73-57 loss largely because they scored only 15 points in the last 16 minutes and made one shot from the field – one! – in the final 10 minutes.
“I didn't think the ball moved today very well,” Holtmann said. “I just didn't think it moved. And Iowa's activity had something to do with that. I just did not think it moved very well today. We've got to take a look at it. The ball's got to move. We've got to take a higher quality of shot than what we took here today. We were really, really sloppy with the ball. As sloppy as we've been all year.”
Correcting the offensive issues and ensuring they don’t become pervasive has to be among the top items on Holtmann’s to-do list. Ohio State can beat really good teams with a mediocre defense; it can’t do so with a mediocre offense.
With improving an inconsistent defense and getting this team healthy for the postseason already on the agenda, there’s suddenly a lengthier-than-once-hoped list of tasks with the regular season coming to a close in less than a week.
“We've got to take a look at areas that we have to own and improve on,” Holtmann said. “At the same time, we all I think recognize that, sure, we've built a really quality season up to this point, but we've got to play better. Obviously, there's been plenty of good times. This is the first time where we've really hit significant struggles. We've got to respond here in this closing stretch.”