Following a seven-game winning streak vaulting Ohio State to 18-4 overall, 12-4 in Big Ten action and a No. 4 ranking, Chris Holtmann's squad has lost three-straight.
In desperate need of stopping the skid before postseason play begins, the Buckeyes face a tall task in current-No. 4 Illinois this Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Schott. The Illini just routed No. 2 Michigan on Tuesday night despite National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu missing the blowout due to a facial injury. He could be back in action this weekend.
Ohio State getting back to its winning ways will require the usual suspects in Duane Washington and E.J. Liddell to shoulder the heaviest loads but well-rounded contributions from the rest of a deep rotation has been a staple for this squad when things have gone well.
During the current slide, too many guys haven't produced at the levels seen when the Buckeyes were taking it to upper-tier teams like Illinois and Iowa while doing what they needed to against respectable opponents like Wisconsin, Maryland and Rutgers. And let's not forget, two of three recent losses came against a Michigan team capable of winning a national title and an Iowa squad that is certainly playing like one of the top teams in the country.
The good news for Ohio State is the regular season finale and the Big Ten tournament give it a chance for some statement wins and generate some positive momentum heading in the NCAA Tournament. But for any of that to happen, beyond the noted expectations for Liddell and Washington, here are five factors influencing the current losing streak that must turn around in a hurry.
For 12 straight games as the calendar flipped to 2021, Justin Ahrens splashed at least one three-pointer. During a 10-game stretch ending just before Ohio State's current three-game slide and running from mid-January to mid-February, the lefty sharpshooter drilled at least three triples in eight contests, connecting on 45% and attempting 6.2 three-point field goals per night.
During the recent losing streak however, Ahrens has attempted just four three-pointers in 53 total minutes, making one. That equates to 0.07 three-point field goal attempts per minute. Conversely, across his first 22 games this season, Ahrens attempted 105 three-pointers in 413 minutes, or 0.26 per minute.
For a guy hitting nearly 46% of his threes on the season that, if we're being honest, doesn't bring any other dimension remotely close to the value of his long-distance shooting, it's imperative that he get shots up or there doesn't seem to be a major reason to put him on the floor.
Obviously teams are paying more attention to Ahrens in recent weeks and it's up to him, his teammates and Holtmann to create more looks. Ahrens is an elite shooter when he gets rolling but if more looks can't be found, his minutes will continue to decline.
Point guard CJ Walker has been shooting the lights out over the last six games, connecting on over 50% of his shots in each outing. In fact, the slasher with a solid midrange game is shooting 56% during the span, hitting 24-of-43 shots.
Unfortunately, Holtmann counts on Walker to be his floor general first and foremost and taking care of the ball has been an uncharacteristic problem of late. During the losing streak, Walker has eight turnovers against 12 assists. Those aren't dreadful numbers but still not what you want from the point guard on an upper-crust team.
Case in point, during the four games preceding the losing streak, all wins, Walker had just five turnovers with 23 assists. With Walker at his best, finding teammates for easy buckets, hitting timely midrange jumpers and valuing the ball, Ohio State had an easier time avoiding empty possessions and giving up runs.
Seeing Walker return to form as a creator and decision-maker would go a long way in righting the ship.
Through its first 21 games, Ohio State ranked No. 6 in the country with 17.4 points coming from the charity stripe per night.
The last three games have seen a reversal of fortune with the Buckeyes averaging 11.7 points per game from the line, a decrease of 5.7 points per contest.
The Buckeyes earned only 13 trips to the stripe against Michigan, hitting 12, before a more typical game against Michigan State, converting 17-of-23 tries. Ohio State's most recent loss saw it take just 10 free throws, making six, in a blowout loss.
Said differently, failing to get to the line wasn't much of factor in the loss to the Hawkeyes but Ohio State sure could've used another 5.7 points in what was a four-point loss to Michigan State and the five-point loss to Michigan.
The good news is Ohio State is still making over 76% of its free throws but earning more trips is a must for the Buckeyes to reach the level of play fans experienced for much of the last two months.
Ohio State is 6-2 win Seth Towns plays at least 10 minutes. In those eight contests, Towns averaged 7.4 points per game on blistering 57% shooting.
Unfortunately, Towns hasn't logged double-digit minutes since six games ago when he played 11 in an eight-point win at Maryland. Towns didn't light the world on fire that night but he did what was needed, burying 2-of-4 triple tries to help stretch the Terrapins defense, adding an assist against zero turnovers taboot.
Over the last five games, Towns averaged 8.0 minutes, 1.6 points per game on just 3-of-10 shooting including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Obviously, the extended time away from basketball has limited how many minutes Towns can play per game and also the depth of what he provide but there's no doubt Ohio State is a better team when Towns is provided some minutes and production off the bench. Whether or not he can rediscover his shot and be healthy enough to log double-digit minutes would certainly be a boost to a team looking get back to victory lane.
SIZZLE THEN FIZZLE (FO' RIZZLE?)
Under Holtmann, Ohio State has built up a bit of a track record of faltering down the stretch. That's a narrative that's certainly gained some air time over the last week.
Last year his Buckeyes started 11-1 only to go 10-9 over the final 19 games with four of those losses coming against ranked opponents. The year before that, the 2018-19 Buckeyes went 4-8 over the final 12 games following a 15-7 start.
In Holtmann's first season at the helm, Ohio State went 3-4 over the final seven games after winning 22 of its first 27 contests. Two of those three losses came against ranked teams.
This season definitely feels different, especially when you consider two of the three recent losses came against extremely talented squads and the Buckeyes hadn't even lost back-to-back games before this recent stretch. The team has two extremely talented scorers and role players that have shown ceilings worthy of a deep run if everything falls into place. At the same time, this roster is beat up which adds a degree of difficulty to postseason play as there isn't nearly as much rest in between clusters of games.
Regaining its collective form seen in early February and overcoming injuries to make a March run would do wonders for the program's mojo as Holtmann continues his efforts to build a consistent contender in Columbus.