COLUMBUS, Ohio — With every shot that clanged off the side of the rim Saturday, Ohio State’s confidence dropped.
It kept dropping. The shots didn’t. In fact, many of them didn’t get as close as the side of the rim in a 74-66 loss to Kansas.
The Buckeyes’ lofty ranking is going to drop, too. Right now, No. 7 Ohio State is simply not as good as No. 8 Kansas, and Saturday’s game at Value City Arena provided proof. Kansas was mature, efficient and unselfish, with Jeff Withey as steady as ever in the post and Ben McLemore providing the flash.
The Jayhawks pulled away in the second half for the win. Ohio State’s offensive struggles played a large part in Kansas building a cushion that stood at 12 in the final five minutes. This was a no-doubter for Kansas and a multiple-alarm disappointment for Ohio State.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that there is one non-conference game still on the schedule and that there’s plenty of basketball still to be played. But if Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn’t find a shooter to complement Deshaun Thomas, it’s going to be an extra-long season.
“I asked Santa to improve our jump shooting,” Matta said after the game, only partially joking.
Ohio State shot 4-of-25 in the first 16 minutes of Saturday’s second half, on its way to 9-of-36. They were equal-opportunity misses, as wide-open shots from the wing missed as much and as often as forced shots in traffic did. The final tally for Ohio State was 20 makes in 65 tries.
Even though Ohio State lost twice to Kansas last season, the second time in the Final Four, Saturday’s game wasn’t about revenge as much it was about Ohio State needing a momentum builder. The Buckeyes came in at 11-1, having lost at No. 1 Duke and beaten a bunch of teams that probably would love to make the NIT come March. The 32 points per game that Jared Sullinger and William Buford took with them in departing after last season suddenly seem like double that.
The second loss on the non-conference schedule means little in the big picture, but future opponents have the blueprint they thought they would have. That blueprint says make the Buckeyes play a slower, half-court game. It says to limit Thomas and take your chances with everyone else.
“We focused on (Thomas) because we know he can go for 30, easy,” Withey said.
Thomas scored 16 Saturday, four off his season average. He shot 4-of-11 overall and 3-of-7 from behind the 3-point line, and his teammates combined for 5-of-26 from beyond the arc. Even if the Buckeyes had made five more of them, 26 3-point attempts is way too many for this team to shoot against a quality opponent. The Buckeyes need both a consistent second scorer and a game plan they can trust.
Perhaps most concerning is it’s clear a lot of Ohio State’s jumpers aren’t going in as soon as they leave the shooter’s hand.
“At one point, I turned to the bench and said, ‘Hey, let’s call a play where we score,'” Matta said.
Ohio State is not a jump-shooting team, and the Buckeyes won’t beat many — or any — good teams if they insist on taking many too many jump shots or get forced into a half-court game. Their formula is to use their athleticism and defense to create transition opportunities and easy shots, wearing opponents down and playing at and above the rim. On Saturday, 23 points off turnovers weren’t nearly enough.
Thomas had the first eight Ohio State points of the second half, and the Buckeyes only scored 10 points total in the first eight-plus minutes of the half. McLemore was everywhere the Buckeyes didn’t want him to be, and that often included above the rim. Withey had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Kansas simply took over in the second half as the Buckeyes couldn’t score.
“(The momentum) changed when we didn’t make shots,” Thomas said. “We had great shots that weren’t falling. They started making them and executing at the other end.”
Kansas ended up holding a 37-33 rebounding edge because Ohio State just kept missing; the Jayhawks had 30 defensive rebounds to the Buckeyes’ 19. Kansas won despite turning the ball over 19 times and shooting a pedestrian 19-of-30 from the foul line.
Ohio State just couldn’t answer. The Buckeyes’ starting backcourt of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith combined to shoot 5-of-24 and 2-of-13 on 3-pointers — Smith was 0-for-7.
It’s a long way to March, and Matta’s track record says the Buckeyes will find a way to use their athleticism and Thomas and Craft’s experience to put themselves in the thick of things in the loaded Big Ten. But if the Buckeyes want any realistic shot at a fourth matchup in the last two seasons with Kansas or the kind of stage on which that kind of matchup would come, Santa might have to deliver a shooter on Tuesday morning.
Thomas can’t do it all himself. But until it’s proven otherwise, future opponents are going to dare him to try.