A catastrophic stretch continues to snowball for Chris Holtmann and company.
After a dominant win over Northwestern to kick in the new year, it’s been downhill fast for the Buckeyes, who dropped their fifth game in a row Wednesday against one of the Big Ten’s most beatable teams. Ohio State started the season 10-3 with a 2-0 record in conference play. Now staring down the barrel of the final 13 games of their league slate, the Buckeyes are sitting in 13th place in the Big Ten with a 10-8 record that puts their NCAA Tournament potential in question.
This isn’t the first time Holtmann’s endured a skid of this magnitude. Following a 12-1 start to the 2018-19 season, the Buckeyes dropped five in a row and six out of seven in the month of January to freefall out of the AP Top 25 for the remainder of the year. Ohio State went 5-6 the rest of the way in the regular season and won a game in the Big Ten Tournament to earn a No. 11 seed in the Big Dance.
That team wound up with a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament, which is as far as any Holtmann-led Buckeye group has gone in March.
But the level of competition Ohio State lost to amid the five-game slide four years ago was a notch above the teams that have beaten the Buckeyes as of late. Yes, Purdue was the No. 1 team in the country (and still the top team in the Big Ten) when the Boilermakers escaped Columbus with a two-point win on Jan. 5. And yes, the Rutgers team Ohio State took to overtime on Sunday is sitting in second place in the conference standings.
In two of the past three games, though, Ohio State’s fallen to teams that entered those games among the bottom two teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota was the only team without a conference win when it took on the Buckeyes in Columbus last Thursday. Controversial game-changing call or not, the Gophers left the Schottenstein Center with a win. Nebraska was next-to-last in the conference standings before edging out a 63-60 victory over Ohio State on its home floor Wednesday.
Even Maryland, which handed Ohio State a seven-point defeat in College Park on Jan. 8, is now 12th in the conference with a Big Ten record of 2-4.
Back in 2019, two of Ohio State’s five straight losses came to the eventual regular season co-Big Ten champions (Michigan State and Purdue), and two of the other three were against teams that finished in the top six of the conference standings (Maryland and Iowa). If you include the Buckeyes’ sixth loss of that seven-game stretch, Ohio State took on three teams ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll at the time, with two of them ranked eighth or above.
And that’s the problem for this year’s Buckeye team; the road doesn’t get any easier from here. The Feb. 19 rematch with Purdue is the only ranked team left on the Buckeyes’ slate, but there are tough outs all over the schedule.
Next up is 12-6 Iowa (sixth in the Big Ten), which will ride a four-game winning streak into Columbus on Saturday. Two of those wins include Maryland and Rutgers, which both beat the Buckeyes in the past 10 days. After that, Ohio State plays at Illinois (fourth in the conference), where Brad Underwood and company have only lost one game all year.
Ohio State closes out January with a road matchup against Indiana, once a top-10 team in the country that has a double-digit win against then-No. 18 North Carolina (which also beat Ohio State this season) on its résumé. The Hoosiers just blew out then-No. 18 Wisconsin by 18 points over the weekend.
The Buckeyes open February against two of the Big Ten’s top five teams (home against Wisconsin and at Michigan) before hosting Northwestern and Michigan State squads that won’t be easy outs, either.
A dark horse Big Ten title contender less than three weeks ago, Ohio State now finds itself flirting with the bottom rung of the conference. The Buckeyes are firmly on the bubble when it comes to NCAA Tournament talk, and as things stand, Wednesday’s loss ensures more analysts will place Ohio State on the outside looking in.
The Trojans, Terrapins, Broncos, and Wildcats making the cut pic.twitter.com/PCEihP1qzY— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 17, 2023
With each successive loss, it’s become increasingly more difficult to view the slim margins of defeat the Buckeyes have suffered as a silver lining. While only one of Ohio State’s eight losses has come by a double-digit deficit, it’s only won two out of nine games that were decided by a single-digit spread this season.
Ohio State’s outlook still has plenty of time to change, but its recent track record hasn’t inspired much confidence in that possibility. For any optimistic hangers-on, it’s time to press the panic button.