Chris Holtmann bore the weight of Ohio State’s four-week collapse on his shoulders during Thursday night’s postgame press conference.
One wouldn’t expect anything different from a head coach whose team just suffered its eighth loss in the last nine games while a vocal portion of the fan base continues to call for his job. Much less a man who had to watch the second half of the 65-60 Wisconsin loss from the locker room after being ejected for an uncouth exchange (to put it mildly) with an official in the opening period.
Any attempt at a turnaround had to start tonight. Already inching closer to the point of no return in terms of NCAA Tournament contention, Ohio State had a winnable game on its hands. The Buckeyes opened as eight-point favorites, had five days in between contests and returned home after a stretch of four road games in the last five. Wisconsin struggled through January just as much as the Buckeyes, having lost six of its past seven games before Thursday.
So when the Badgers jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first 94 seconds, and then a double-digit advantage by the 7:41 mark, it was all the more demoralizing for Ohio State. And at this stage in the season, a late comeback that saw the Buckeyes cut Wisconsin’s lead to two points in the final minute doesn’t come close to resembling a moral victory.
“We just all have to be better. We all have to be better. It begins with me,” Holtmann said. “Again, I lost my composure. That's on me. It's fully my responsibility. I deserve the first technical. We all have to be better, our start has to be better. We have to play harder, and we certainly have to play smarter, we've got to coach better. All those things.”
The Buckeyes were on the brink of a full-fledged meltdown by the end of the first half. Holtmann had already crossed that threshold before intermission, as the tirade he directed at the referees felt like a moment that had been boiling up over the past month. Understandable, considering a fall from grace that transpired in astoundingly short order, but not exactly commendable.
February 3, 2023
Already leading by 10 points when Holtmann got tossed, Wisconsin hit the four free throws it earned from the two technical fouls and then knocked down one more field goal to finish the first half with a 16-point lead, 43-27. At that point, the night was an utter catastrophe. Wisconsin was battering the Buckeyes on their own home floor in a game that was supposed to mark a return to form – that is, if they still had any hope of playing a meaningful game in mid-March.
“We had no bite. We had no bite early,” Holtmann said. “We had no bite early, and really for most of the first half.”
Credit to the Buckeyes for finding some resolve and not folding completely from then on out. Zed Key actually said Holtmann’s ejection “definitely gave us some fire,” rather than serving as a breaking point, and Ohio State had a legitimate shot to steal a win late. But without a win, that doesn’t earn them anything extra in the final full month of the regular season.
If anything, Holtmann said the Buckeyes’ consistent ability to tighten deficits late in games only shows they don’t ramp up the intensity until they’re already behind.
“I think we play harder when we’re down and I think our effort is not what it needs to be,” Holtmann said. “It certainly wasn’t what it needed to be to start. But again, that’s ultimately my responsibility. … I mean, I think we've played better at times when we've been down all year. And that was certainly the case.”
Despite Holtmann’s postgame dejection, he doesn’t think Ohio State has played poorly in every game during the dismal results of its past nine games. Nor does he think the Buckeyes have been plagued by the same problems every night.
"We're spending hours and hours trying to figure out what we need to do better to get our players in better position. ... So if I had answers for you right now, then we might not have performed like we did.”– Chris Holtmann
But whether it’s the same issues or different ones, the fact that they’ve come so frequently is disturbing enough in itself.
“I think we've had some efforts that have been good in this stretch where we have not been rewarded with the win. And certainly stretches of play that have been good in this stretch where we have not won the game and not received the outcome for a variety of reasons,” Holtmann said. “So I don't look at this stretch as saying we played poorly in every game. I think there have been games where we've played well, for the most part, and lost. I thought we played very well at Rutgers and lost. I think there's also been games where we played just too poorly in too many stretches.
“Tonight, our turnovers throughout the game were a significant issue. Our lack of bite early was a significant issue. And then, as I mentioned, I take responsibility for I just don't think we played as poised as we needed to. So I don't look at this stretch as saying it's been the same story every game. It hasn't. And as far as significant changes, again, those are things that we'll address as a staff and spend a lot of hours trying to figure out if we need to make significant changes.”
If you’re searching for an overarching answer to explain Ohio State’s downward spiral, or an easy way to make the Buckeyes’ struggles disappear, Holtmann doesn’t have one. He has no choice but to search for one in the weeks to come, though, or else Holtmann will carry even more weight on his shoulders entering the offseason.
“That's our job as coaches to figure out. That's what we're trying to do,” Holtmann said. “That's what we're working hours on end to try to do. We're spending hours and hours trying to figure out what we need to do better to get our players in better position, and certainly to perform at a higher level. So if I had answers for you right now, then we might not have performed like we did.”