Of all the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s games this season, its matchup against Northwestern on the road on Jan. 6 might best encapsulate the issues plaguing it.
On that evening, redshirt sophomore Kam Williams came off the bench to ignite the otherwise struggling Buckeyes en route to a 65-56 victory. The guard had 21 points on 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range.
The next-highest scorer was redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson, who had 12 points. And besides Williams’ career-high performance from downtown, no other Buckeye made a 3-pointer.
What the game showed about the whole season is a lack of consistent performances, resulting in a continuous reliance on a new unsung hero nearly every night to rescue the team.
Against Indiana and Rutgers, it was freshman guard JaQuan Lyle. Sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop propelled the team with a 22-point burst against Penn State.
The first game versus Maryland it was no one, then sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate shouldered the load in the rematch.
Thompson took his turn in the victory over Illinois on Jan. 28 when he scored a team-high 16 points.
It’s not that scoring by committee is necessarily a bad thing for a basketball team. In some ways, it’s a plus for the Buckeyes that they have myriad players who can step up and score.
But the lack of a go-to scorer to count on through thick and thin is seeing its effects on the Buckeyes.
It perhaps might explain why one night OSU looks like a threat to challenge for a Big Ten title and on others, a team destined for the National Invitational Tournament.
OSU coach Thad Matta acknowledged that a lack of steadiness has hampered his team, but as the Buckeyes get ready to welcome Northwestern for a rematch Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center, he said he’s hoping for a change.
“We’ve talked about everybody coming in being dialed in, being focused, whether you’re in the game or out of the game,” he said Monday. “Whatever we’ve got to do to get that consistent effort across the board is what we’re after.”
That unwavering performance might happen against the Wildcats, the coach said, if what has been displayed at practice lately shows itself come tip-off.
In practice, a litany of roster combinations have been used. None of them have had any “rhyme or reason,” Matta said. These random practice assignments are done in an attempt to bring as much hustle, energy and effort as possible instead of just having the starters practice against the bench.
“These guys have worked their tails off,” Matta said. “I want to see the carryover from what we’ve been doing in practice.”
If those things do carry over, Tate said he thinks the Buckeyes are in good position beyond just their game against the Wildcats. The 6-foot-4 sophomore said OSU hasn’t hit its stride quite yet, but if it does soon, it will have positive trajectory heading into postseason play.
“We’re sitting right in that middle area of the Big Ten,” Tate said. “(Tuesday) versus Northwestern is a start, we could start a win streak, get some momentum going into these last couple weeks.”
After scoring in double figures in 12 of OSU’s first 15 games, including five performances of 18 points or more, junior forward Marc Loving seems to have lost his shooting stroke.
In the Buckeyes’ last nine games, the Toledo native is averaging just 9.2 points a game, including six consecutive games of below 36 percent shooting.
While speaking to the media Monday afternoon, Loving was noticeably dejected, consistently allowing Tate to answer a bulk of the questions.
When he did speak, his answers were terse, his tone subdued.
“The ball just isn’t going in the rim,” Loving said when asked to explain his struggles. “I feel like I’m taking decent shots, the ball just isn’t going down.”
Matta offered a little more explanation for why he thinks his team’s most veteran player has been underperforming as of late. The coach said he thinks Loving has a propensity to carry mistakes with him.
Rather than leaving a missed shot or turnover in the rear-view mirror, Loving continues to focus on them, he said, therefore clogging up his mind and making it difficult to break out of the slump.
“He’s worked very hard the past few days,” Matta said, later adding, “I’m hoping, as a junior, he understands the ramifications of how well we need him to play.”
Northwestern (16-8, 4-7) comes to Columbus feeling good after it curtailed its five-game losing skid on Thursday against Minnesota in emphatic fashion.
The Wildcats throttled the Golden Gophers 82-58 to get back on the winning track for the first time since Jan. 12.
Coach Chris Collins’ squad is powered by strong guard play from sophomore Bryant McIntosh and redshirt senior Tre Demps. They both average 14.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest.
The duo likes to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, with more than 40 percent of Northwestern’s attempts coming from the two.
McIntosh, who also distributes 6.6 assists per game, connects at a higher clip — 38 percent to Demps’ 28.
“We’re definitely going to have to guard the 3-point line,” Matta said.
A different wrinkle about the Wildcats this time around compared to the first meeting this season is that they will have senior center Alex Olah back on the floor.
The 7-footer missed the Jan. 6 game, but since returning from injury, he’s shown flashes of the player who posted three 20-plus point performances early on.
Matta said OSU will have to account for Olah’s presence on the floor, meaning Thompson and freshman center Daniel Giddens will be instrumental in the Buckeyes picking up the season sweep.
Sometimes when a team has beaten an opponent already, the victor can relax heading into the rematch instead of placing the same importance on the game.
Tate admitted this can happen at times, but he said the Buckeyes understand how crucial Tuesday’s tilt is.
“We’ve got to come out with the same fire that we would any other team,” Tate said. “This one is vital in my opinion.”
After taking on the Wildcats, the Buckeyes are slated to head east to Piscataway, New Jersey, to square off against Rutgers. OSU toppled the Scarlet Knights 94-68 on Jan. 13.
Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. on Saturday.