December is the darkest month on Ohio's calendar.
A combination of the axial tilt of the planet coupled with a generally cloudy and grey climate means that Columbus in early winter receives about as much sunlight as your average British pub on a moor. We spend the month either anticipating being huddled on one specific couch, eating and watching television, or actually doing it. By the time it's over, our bodies are a bloated, angry reminder not to actually eat an entire pie in one sitting even if that's technically what you're capable of.
Basketball players are not immune to the same lethargy. They're human beings, and have the same kind of inclination towards sluggishness in the darkest months of the year that we are. Couple that with a typical week-long break for Christmas, and you've got the opportunity for a men's basketball team to look at least a little bit sluggish as they attempt to get their sea legs underneath them in January.
The 2021-22 men's basketball team had it even worse. Bouts of COVID led to a December of waiting for three cancelled games that never came, and once they finally did get rolling, they had to contend with the beginning of a conference schedule that will rarely pull any punches.
This was a team riding high on the inertia of their own wins, only to be stopped dead in their tracks by outside factors.
Which leads us to what's been growing as a hushed curse among Buckeye fans; a fated hex that will destroy NCAA tournament seeding and make Ohio State men's basketball really, really annoying to watch. The January Slump.
I'm not here to tell you that ghosts aren't real. Ohio State's struggles in January, and specifically January, are absolutely A Thing and should be accounted for when thinking about the overall ceiling of a particular team. But what I would point out is that the Slump is a weird, mercurial boogeyman that isn't necessarily a preordained outcome for any Buckeye team, even one that just got stuffed into a locker in Madison and has lost two out of their last three games.
And in fact, it isn't a wholly Chris Holtmann phenomenon (nor does his teams get snakebit every January, either). Let's look at the last ten seasons, this year included.
|YEAR||JANUARY WINS||JANUARY LOSSES|
- The 2017-18 team peaked in the middle of Holtmann's first season, with Keita Bates-Diop emerging as one of the best players in the country and the team going on a 17-2 run that set them up well for March Madness.
- January of 2018-19 was probably the most miserable stretch of games for the team in a decade. The only team they beat was a mediocre Nebraska team that was in the middle of a flameout of their own, and the Buckeyes finished the month by losing 49-65 to Michigan.
- Thad Matta's 2013-14 team got bounced by Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Oof.
- None of these January records are particularly telling for how Ohio State would perform in March Madness, in part because OSU hasn't advanced past the second round since 2012-13.
Holtmann's team has five games left on their January schedule, after adding a game against IUPUI a few days ago. It's possible for them to still put up their best January record in years; they still have one of the best players in the country in E.J. Liddell, a solid core of role players, and an apparent emerging star in Malaki Branham.
But to accomplish that, they'll have to go through two decent teams in Penn State and Minnesota (although it should probably be pointed out that Minnesota is struggling mightily in Big Ten play so far), and one very good team in No. 7 Purdue (although it should probably be pointed out that Purdue just had a recent loss of their own to Wisconsin, so maybe Wisconsin is just the best team in the history of basketball now?).
Ultimately I don't think any Ohio State men's basketball fan should take too much stock in what happens in the next few games. Even though the January Slump is real, and even spans the past two coaches, it isn't necessarily predictive of how the team will ultimately do come tournament time in March.
For an Ohio State program looking to improve how they've done in that particular month, maybe "improvement" is a more important distinction than overall record, at least as far as the doldrums of winter are concerned.