Stagnant Buckeyes need a spark

What’s ailing Ohio State? The list is a long one.

The Buckeyes are mired in a stretch of three losses in four games — and almost four weeks during which mediocre performances have outnumbered strong ones. After playing maybe their most complete game of the year in an overtime loss at Michigan on Feb. 5, they’ve had only short stretches of good play since.

On Sunday at Wisconsin, they got flattened from the start. The final was 71-49, and it was even uglier than that sounds.

This is an unfamiliar place for a program that’s won or shared the last three Big Ten titles and five of the last seven as Ohio State is now losing ground on the leaders in what’s probably the nation’s strongest conference. Under head coach Thad Matta, Ohio State basketball has earned its status as more than just that other sport in Columbus, as well as its standing among the nation’s best programs.

Right now, though, these Buckeyes would just like to know that a couple jump shots might fall.

The good news, if there’s any, is that also-struggling Minnesota visits Wednesday for a game between two desperate teams. If Ohio State can get well in that one, it could build some momentum and confidence heading into Sunday’s home game vs. Michigan State.

One step at a time, though. And even a small step in a positive direction would be welcomed. The Buckeyes have been good enough defensively and athletically to cover their other flaws for most of the season, but in the midst of a stretch against top competition just about everything that could go wrong has.

OHIO STATE DOESN’T SCORE

Well, Deshaun Thomas does; he leads the Big Ten at 20.1 points per game. But Ohio State is stuck in a strange place in which sometimes Thomas shoots too much and sometimes he should probably shoot it more. The search for a consistent second scorer has been a futile and season-long one. Point guard Aaron Craft is scoring more than he did or needed to the last few seasons, but he’s not a great outside shooter. And he’s not collecting assists from spot-up shooters often, either, because the Buckeyes can’t get shots to drop.

Defenses are guarding Thomas accordingly. When Ohio State has to play a halfcourt game and isn’t getting scoring from starting center Amir Williams and backup forward LaQuinton Ross, it’s prone to prolonged dry spells.

Throwing the ball in the post to Jared Sullinger the last two seasons and watching him work was just too easy. Williams has made progress, but Ohio State simply doesn’t have a true scoring threat on the block. Williams has been active and more confident at times around the rim, and his nine points, four rebounds and four blocks in the game against Michigan was a very good sign. Since, though, the Buckeyes have been back to being a team without a true post threat.  

Williams got in early foul trouble against Cody Zeller and Indiana and scored just one point in 11 minutes, then after scoring a career-high 10 against a depleted Northwestern team, he came back against Wisconsin Sunday and got in foul trouble again. In nine minutes, he recorded zero points, zero rebounds and four fouls.

Ohio State has received little help in the post behind Williams. Evan Ravenel has eight total points in the last 6 games. Third-string center Trey McDonald has been getting some run with Williams and Ravenel struggling to score.

STRETCHING THE DEFENSE HAS BEEN A CHALLENGE

The best teams have developed an identity at this point of the season. The Buckeyes are a team that’s too reliant on Thomas and too inconsistent from 3-point range to lack a true inside scorer.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. is averaging 10 points per game and is the Buckeyes most accurate 3-point shooter at 39 percent for the season, but his two biggest games in conference play have come against Nebraska, the Big Ten’s second-worst team. He’s 12 of 31 from beyond the arc over the last 11 games.

Smith hit big shots during last year’s tournament run and has hit big ones this season, too. He just hasn’t done it consistently or lately. We’ve seen flashes from Ross, who didn’t play much last year and still hasn’t earned consistent big minutes, but he’s capable of scoring in a variety of ways, most notably and importantly from beyond the arc. He’s just 2 of 6 on 3-point tries in the last four games, with both makes coming at Michigan.

Small forward Sam Thompson is a high-flyer and might be the Big Ten’s best dunker, but defenses know he’s not much of a jump-shooter. They dare him, as they dare Craft and backup point guard Shannon Scott, to pull up and shoot. Especially lately, that’s been a winning strategy for defenses.

Freshman spot-up shooter Amedeo Della Valle got some rare minutes and made a 3-pointer at Wisconsin — he had another make negated by a pre-shot whistle — and Matta said Monday that Della Valle may get more minutes going forward.

The overall shooting and scoring numbers, even in conference play, aren’t terrible. Ohio State generally ranks in the top half and top quarter of the Big Ten in key categories. It’s clear, though, that something just isn’t right. Maybe it’s just a lack of firepower and horsepower. Or, maybe, this team can still make a March run.

HOW CAN MATTA GET THINGS FIXED?

Maybe the 81 points Indiana got on Feb. 10 were just a product of Indiana being really good, and Wisconsin turned into an offensive juggernaut for a day in Madison — and did it on a day that Ohio State simply couldn’t answer.

The Buckeyes are equipped to win low-scoring, physical games because Craft leads a defense that can neutralize — or totally handcuff — opposing point guards and has plenty of athletic, long-armed players who can block shots and make plays in passing lanes. But when the defense can’t force turnovers or turn long rebounds into transition opportunities, the offense has been stymied in the halfcourt and forced to shoot jump shots. See above.

Matta has been playing Craft and Scott together in stretches. Maybe that will continue, and maybe the Buckeyes will utilize more full-court pressure? Craft and Scott together tend to speed up the game, which can lead to transition baskets and better looks for Thomas, and going fast is the Buckeyes best chance to attack the rim and try to score from close range.

Minnesota, which prefers a half-court game, could be a good place to emphasize extending the defense and forcing the tempo.

The Buckeyes are comfortable in the slow, half-court setting, but not exactly excelling there. In general, they’re a team with a few really unique players and an overall personality that opponents seem to know. In looking for positives, the Wisconsin loss was the first “bad” loss in a while; this team has veterans and will certainly be battle-tested when the postseason comes.

But Ohio State is officially in something deeper than a rut. Its flaws are on full display, and any shakeup of the lineup, rotations or strategy will have to breed confidence. Last week’s close call against Northwestern was further proof that there are no breathers on the schedule, and the blowout loss at Wisconsin was a stark reminder that both the margin for error and the chances of this team coming back from a big deficit are slim.

It was a beatdown and, presumably, a wakeup call. How Ohio State answers — and how it can — remains to be seen.