Increased Defensive Intensity Tangible in Back-to-Back Buckeye Wins

By Griffin Strom on February 17, 2022 at 10:10 am
E.J. Liddell
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Chris Holtmann demanded defensive improvements from Ohio State before its matchup with Michigan last Saturday, and the Buckeyes have not disappointed in their two performances since.

Giving up an average of 51 points in back-to-back wins over Michigan and Minnesota, Ohio State’s last two opponents have shot just 36.3 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3-point range and have turned the ball over an average of 12 times. Heading into Ann Arbor last weekend, the Buckeyes ranked 126th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating – the worst of any team ranked top-50 overall in the country. Two games later, Ohio State has shot up nearly 50 spots in defensive efficiency, vaulting to No. 78 in the nation.

“There’s some specific parts of our defense that we’ve really been stressing the last two weeks. We’ve showed them clips from our team our third year that was top 20 in the country in defense, and our first team that was top 20 as well,” Holtmann said Tuesday. “I think the connection and just some key points (had led to improvement). I think we need Jamari (Wheeler) to continue to lead the way there with that.”

The way Ohio State closed things out against Rutgers – rather, the way they didn’t close things out – was the final straw for Holtmann. The Buckeyes allowed the Scarlet Knights to score points on every possession in the final three minutes and change, a period in which Ohio State gave away an eight-point lead to finish with another tally in the loss column.

Rutgers shot 53.2 percent from the field in the 66-64 Buckeye loss, the highest opponent field-goal percentage of the season against Ohio State, and the Scarlet Knights managed to outscore the Buckeyes 30-18 in the paint despite pulling down nine fewer offensive rebounds than the scarlet and gray.

“Bottom line is we've gotta be better defensively,” Holtmann said in the days after the Rutgers loss. “That's what has really gotten us in certain games. It has not been anything other than the fact that we've not been able to get stops when we needed to.”

Two games prior, Ohio State had every bit as frustrating a defensive effort on the road, albeit against one of the nation’s top teams. The 81 points Purdue put up in a three-point win over Ohio State were the second-most any team has scored on the Buckeyes in 2021-22, and the Boilermakers forced Ohio State to commit a season-high 22 fouls on the afternoon. Purdue’s field-goal percentage (48.3) and 3-point field-goal percentage (47.1) were both the second-highest an opponent has recorded against Ohio State all year, and the Buckeyes were once again the victim of a significant scoring deficit in the lane.

Both of those performances pointed to the potential for a big game from the Michigan offense, which had scored 82 points against Purdue just two nights before hosting the Buckeyes last weekend. Instead, the Wolverines mustered their second-fewest points (57) of the entire season and missed six of their final seven shots as Ohio State closed the show in the rivalry game.

“Coaches challenged us on the defensive side of things,” Cedric Russell said after the win over Michigan. “The end of that Rutgers game, the last four minutes we didn’t get a stop and the result was an L. We didn't want that to happen again tonight. They were really just challenging us this whole week on the defensive side of the ball, and tonight we responded.”

The Buckeyes were given an easier assignment on paper to start this week, but that didn’t make the final results against Minnesota any less impressive. Ohio State held Minnesota to just 45 points, the fewest the Buckeyes have allowed to any Big Ten team in eight seasons. The Gophers scored 20 points in the second half and shot just 16-for-52 for the game, a 30.8 percent mark that stands as the lowest any team has shot against Ohio State all season.

That caliber of defensive play, which helped force 13 Minnesota turnovers, allowed Ohio State to score 19 points off the Gophers’ giveaways. The Buckeyes racked up 47 points in the second half to turn a halftime deficit into an eventual 25-point blowout win.

“Just keep doing what we’re doing on defense and turn defense into offense, and that’s how we want to play; get turnovers and play in transition,” Wheeler said. “So we feel like that’s the easy way to score and the way we want to play. So just focus on the defensive end and everything will take care of itself.”

Of course, a couple stellar showings on defense does not guarantee sustained success for the Buckeyes. Just how committed Ohio State is to an extended stretch of improved defensive performance will be put to the ultimate test Saturday, as the Buckeyes return to action against the Big Ten’s top scoring offense.

Iowa, which averages the fourth-most points in the nation with 84, is coming off of a pair of games in which it scored 110 points against Maryland and 98 against Nebraska – and both of those contests ended in regulation. The Hawkeyes have the Big Ten’s leading scorer, sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who is averaging the third-most points in the country at 23.3.

“We’ve seen some improvement, but obviously we're gonna get tested against a really good offense in here coming up,” Holtmann said.

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