When reflecting on how Ohio State defended Hunter Dickinson a season ago, Chris Holtmann had a tinge of reminiscence in his tone.
In last year’s trip to Ann Arbor, E.J. Liddell, Kyle Young and Zed Key limited the 7-foot-1 Michigan big man to just 14 points on 7-for-17 shooting in a double-digit road win at the Crisler Center. Juxtapose that with Dickinson’s performance on Sunday, and it’s easy to see why Holtmann might be feeling nostalgic.
The third-year center went off for 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting, his highest point total in more than a month, and pulled down 11 rebounds. Dickinson got the Wolverines going early and started off the second half with a bang. By game’s end, the maize and blue sent the Buckeyes packing with a 77-69 loss – their fourth in a row – with Dickinson leading the charge.
“They guarded him really well here last year, really well here,” Holtmann said. “Exceptionally well.”
Ohio State didn’t lead for a single second of Sunday’s contest, and the loss gave the Buckeyes their ninth loss in the last 10 games. But it wasn’t the worst performance Ohio State’s turned in during that stretch. In fact, Holtmann thought his team “certainly played better” in stretches against Michigan than it did on Thursday versus Wisconsin.
Any improvements weren’t evident in the way Ohio State guarded Michigan’s best player, though.
“We wanted to force him to take some tougher shots. I think that's ultimately what went wrong in our game plan. A lot of his shots I feel like were just easy, over the top shots on us."– Justice Sueing on defending Dickinson
Among the Big Ten’s leading scorers and rebounders, slowing down Dickinson should’ve been the primary point of emphasis on the Buckeyes’ game plan. And perhaps it was. It just didn’t matter.
Dickinson scored six of Michigan’s first 12 points to give the Wolverines a two-possession lead on the Buckeyes by the first media timeout. And all three of those buckets came in succession. The Wolverines led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but Ohio State made it a five-point game by the intermission. But Dickinson hit the first shot of the final period and scored eight out of 10 points for the Wolverines in one stretch to put them back up nine with 10:35 to play.
Ohio State didn’t struggle to score in the second half, necessarily. The Buckeyes knocked down 48.3% of their shots in the period, which was 14% better than they shot in the first 20 minutes. But they struggled to stop Dickinson for long enough to cut the deficit below three points.
“We couldn't get a stop when we really needed to. We would go on a 6-0, 7-0 run, then they'll have their own run,” Thornton said. “So it's kind of hard to really come back and try to overcome the deficit. For example, Hunter Dickinson got a bunch of layups and stuff so it's hard to come back while he's scoring. So it's just a scoring match at that point. But we just gotta hold down and get a little bit more stops so we can be more successful at the end of the game.”
Justice Sueing said the game plan centered around forcing Dickinson to take contested attempts from the floor. Given his 66.6% shooting percentage, it’s clear the Buckeyes didn’t execute on that strategy.
“We wanted to force him to take some tougher shots. I think that's ultimately what went wrong in our game plan,” Sueing said. “A lot of his shots I feel like were just easy, over the top shots on us. But we wanted to force him to take some tougher shots whether we were coming on the double, trying to force him to pass it out. We were successful a couple of times on those rotations, but not enough for us to win tonight.”
Zed Key was the primary matchup for Dickinson down low, and he had a tough day on multiple fronts. Not only did the Buckeye big man finish with just six points on 3-for-7 shooting, he also picked up three fouls trying to slow Dickinson down. Of course, he didn’t have much success in that pursuit.
Felix Okpara also played 14 minutes, but missed all three of his shot attempts and struggled to stop Dickinson in several one-on-one scenarios on the other end. Holtmann wasn’t overly critical of Okpara’s defensive performance, but acknowledged that the true freshman needs to add size to his frame in order to bang with bigs like Dickinson in the low post.
“I'm trying to coach him to add about 10 pounds of muscle. There's some technique involved with it, but I think as much as anything, he needs to add, with his length, 10 pounds of muscle to be able to defend those guys,” Holtmann said. “He's a really smart kid and a really smart player. He's really smart. So he's going to be able to learn post defense at a really high level. I really do. You add his length, his intelligence, his motor. The only thing Felix is missing right now is strength. And we need to get him stronger.”
Ohio State even threw 6-foot-7 guard Eugene Brown at Dickinson for a couple possessions at one point. Suffice to say the Wolverine scored with ease in his first post-up look against the Buckeye wing. There’s no matchup that better highlights Ohio State’s lack of true size down low, although Holtmann said it was only utilized due to foul trouble.
“I don't know if he likes to do it. You'd have to ask him that. … And I think it just we were in foul trouble,” Holtmann said. “Felix got two quick ones, so that's why we went to that. But I don't know how many possessions he played in that role. I think it was probably limited if any.”
Ohio State hasn’t struggled with every top-end big man it’s played this season. During the Buckeyes’ Jan. 5 meeting with Purdue, 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey was limited to 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting and 11 rebounds – all well below his season averages.
But problems seem to vary game-to-game for Ohio State, which is now one game under .500 for the season. If the Buckeyes want to finish the year above that mark, they’ll have to figure a few of those issues out at some point.
And for their sake, preferably sooner rather than later.
“I thought there were some stretches of really good play. I still think some of the issues that have challenged us – inability to get a stop when it's maybe a three- or five-point game, too many shots over length, not playing off two feet – shows both, in some cases, our inexperience together and our youth,” Holtmann said. “But those two things come to mind as preventing us from being able to really put significant game pressure on them in terms of it being a one- or two-possession game late.”