Buckeye basketball facing tough times

By Ari Wasserman

The beauty of January, a month that offers new beginnings and a shield from the past, wasn’t lost on the Ohio State basketball team.

During the month, it enjoyed a four-game Big Ten winning streak and solid positioning in the most closely contested conference race in the country all before eventually regaining its status as a top-10 team nationally.

Things were starting to feel normal again for the Buckeyes –then they faced a week in early February that consisted of a road game at No. 3 Michigan and a date with No. 1 Indiana in Value City Arena.

Two losses later – one close, one not – and reality was again realized. Ohio State may be a tough out when NCAA Tournament time rolls around, but the Buckeyes as they stand now are still a work in progress.

“We are who we are,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “We’ve got to find ways to keep looking at and dissecting what we’re doing to find ways (to improve).” Breaking down Ohio State’s 81-68 loss Feb. 10 to the top-ranked Hoosiers could involve a long process, but on the surface it looked as simple as a potential Final Four team asserting its dominance over a squad that could struggle to reach the Sweet 16.

In the Buckeyes’ most lopsided home loss to a conference opponent since an 84-70 defeat to Michigan on Feb. 7, 2004, the same problem that plagued Ohio State in big games this season happened again against the Hoosiers.

The armor from the New Year was replaced by truth.

Big Ten-leading scorer Deshaun Thomas did what he always does and accounted for 26 points, but no other Buckeye was a significant offensive threat as Ohio State struggled against high-powered Indiana, which had three players score 20 or more points. No OSU opponent had boasted a trio of 20-point scorers in the same game since Penn State did it during a 98-85 overtime win over the Buckeyes on Feb. 27, 1999.

IU’s Big Three – solid big man Cody Zeller and dynamic outside options Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford – accounted for 70 points while the Hoosiers shot 53.1 percent as a team from the floor, the highest percentage for any Ohio State opponent this year.

“We definitely didn’t have the same effort we did last game,” OSU point guard Aaron Craft said, referring to the Buckeyes’ overtime loss to the Wolverines five days earlier. “That’s on us. Whatever it is, we have to bounce back.”

Regardless of the reason vs. the Hoosiers, it was clear the Buckeyes were again overmatched when pitted against a team many experts feel will be in the mix for a national title run. Ohio State was also once in that discussion but now is on the outside looking in after falling to 1-6 against ranked opponents and 1-4 against top-five teams this season.

The same goes for the Big Ten race. At 7-4, the Buckeyes are still within two games of first place. But four teams are ahead of them in the standings – Indiana and Michigan State at 9-2, and Michigan and Wisconsin at 8-3.

“There’s a lot of basketball still to be played,” Craft offered, quickly reminding everyone that he still had championship aspirations for this year’s team. “We just can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”

That was an immense contrast to the way Ohio State players felt after their overtime loss at Michigan on Feb. 5. Sure, there was plenty for the team to feel sorry about after dropping a closely contested game it could have won on the road.

But there was reason for optimism for a team still hoping to again be included in the national discussion.

“We took the top team in the country to overtime,” sophomore guard LaQuinton Ross told BSB after the game. “It is too bad that we lost, but we proved we can play with anyone in the country.”

The current state of the team offers less reason for sanguinity.

The Indiana game was the first time all season that the Buckeyes looked completely overmatched by an opponent who was clearly better. A similar argument could have been made following a 74-55 loss at then-No. 11 Illinois in early January, but Matta has said multiple times since then that he considers that loss more of an anomaly caused by a team that wasn’t prepared.

Against Indiana, the Buckeyes felt they were prepared, and still it wasn’t nearly enough. Even so, their head coach is not in panic mode.

“I’m probably most concerned that we didn’t execute at the level we needed to execute,” Matta said after the Indiana loss. “Give Indiana credit because they disrupted us a little bit. But we had to find ways to impose our will on them and make them guard us.”

Ohio State’s athleticism and relentless nature on defense have allowed it to be the aggressor in most of its games. But teams such as Indiana – and others expected to still be playing in the final weekends of the season – are good enough not to allow the Buckeyes to simply get by on that.

Defense is going to be the staple of this year’s team, but Ohio State is still searching for an offensive identity outside of simply relying on Thomas to knock down contested jumpers, sometimes out of the flow of the offense.

But there’s good news for Ohio State. Most highly ranked teams seem to be struggling at this point of the season. The top five teams in the USA Today coaches’ poll – Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Duke and Kansas – mustered only a 5-5 record during the week of Feb. 4.

The Blue Devils, who moved up to No. 1 in the coaches’ poll released Feb. 11, narrowly beat a below-average Boston College team the day before. Duke had only two losses through Feb. 11, but one was a 90-63 rout Jan. 23 at Miami (Fla.). And the Buckeyes played the Blue Devils close before bowing 73-68 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 28 when Duke was the No. 2 team in the nation.

That means the Buckeyes can take solace in knowing there is still an opening to be standing at the end of March.

“We have played with the best teams in the country,” Ross said. “We feel like we’re good enough to beat anyone.”

All that’s left to do now is prove it.