Minnesota-Ohio St. Preview
The word kept coming up again and again as Ohio State players spoke about their most recent outing: Embarrassing.
That's how Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson repeatedly described the 18th-ranked Buckeyes' effort, mindset, defense and overall performance in a 71-49 trashing at Wisconsin on Sunday.
February has mostly been a month to forget for Minnesota under coach Tubby Smith, who called Sunday's 72-51 loss at Iowa one of the most disappointing of his career.
These Big Ten rivals look to get back on track Wednesday night in a matchup that could go a long way toward seeding in the conference tournament and possibly even in the NCAA tournament.
"I think I can speak for the team, we are embarrassed," Smith Jr. said. "We not only embarrassed ourselves, we embarrassed our coaching staff, our university, our school president and our fans. We embarrassed everybody. We didn't answer the call. We didn't do anything we're known to do. We kind of abandoned everything - our principles, offensively and defensively."
Thompson added that the way the Buckeyes played had dishonored the great players and teams that have gone before them, including teams that had won the last three Big Ten titles.
The players have held several team meetings since flying home Sunday night. Thompson wouldn't disclose what the Buckeyes talked about, but hinted that it may have been about getting their heads straight after losing three of their last four games.
"It goes back to conditioning our minds," Thompson said. "Every guy in the locker room knows that coach (Thad) Matta is a defensive coach, knows what our team expectations are on the defensive end. So whenever we go out and don't do it, it's a result of our minds not being where they need to be to win a basketball game."
Matta has clearly challenged the Buckeyes (18-7, 8-5) to reach deeper. Much deeper.
"We didn't play," he said. "That one's over. But what do we do next? That's my biggest concern."
What's next is Minnesota (18-8, 6-7), a team facing almost identical questions after also losing three of its last four. Ohio State has won the last five overall meetings and has taken 10 of the past 11 matchups at home.
But before even discussing the Golden Gophers, the Buckeyes have been doing some self-analysis.
"Now we have to move on," Smith Jr. said. "We have games coming up. We have to go back home and start doing stuff that we did initially to help us win games."
Ranked No. 4 in the preseason, the Buckeyes have battled an array of problems all season, it seems. They lay waste to inferior teams, going 17-0 against unranked teams while mustering just one win in eight contests against teams in the Associated Press Top 25.
Clearly, their nagging shortcomings - a lack of a No. 2 scorer behind Big Ten leader Deshaun Thomas; poor shooting in big games; and erratic defensive intensity - are magnified when the competition is better.
"We can't play like this in February," point guard Aaron Craft said while questioning the team's effort. "This is beginning-of-the-year mistakes and mental errors."
Matta tried just about everything to shake his team out of its doldrums, to no avail.
He knows only one way to change things.
"You've got to go to work. Guys have to look at themselves and say, I have got a little more ownership at stake in this - all of us," he said.
After the Buckeyes had a good workout Monday, they showed up Tuesday smiling. An angry Matta did not handle it well.
"Coach Matta immediately said, 'I don't know what you guys are feeling good for. We just lost. It was embarrassing. We're not going to let this go. We're going to beat this drum until you guys realize this can never happen again. Ever. In history,'" Smith Jr. said.
Tubby Smith's team rose as high as eighth in the AP poll, but Minnesota has fallen out of the Top 25 after its once-promising start has given way to another middle-of-the-pack performance in the Big Ten.
The Gophers still have, for now, a solid case for an NCAA tournament selection, but they've dropped seven of 10 and are 4-16 in February over the last three years.
Minnesota jumped out to a 21-5 lead Sunday before being outscored 37-10 in a 20-minute stretch spanning the halves, and things could get worse against Ohio State with power forward Rodney Williams - second on the team in points, rebounds and blocks - possibly being held out again with a sore left shoulder.
"It's just the change in attitude. Changing the way we play," point guard Andre Hollins said, recalling the way the team recalibrated after last year's slump to reach the NIT championship game.
"We've got to look onto the next mission. We got past it, but we've got to remember what we did wrong, go to Ohio State and tough this one out."