Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo did not forget what former Spartan Magic Johnson told his team. After the Spartans’ win against No. 20 Wisconsin on Feb. 12, Johnson asked the locker room “Who’s going to stay consistent the longest?”
As Izzo reminisced on this moment, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann was already gone, his team having lost to No. 11 Michigan State 62-44 after holding a 31-25 halftime lead.
Instead of consistency, Holtmann saw irregularity, watching an offense that had shot 40 percent from the field in the first half come out of the locker room and make 4-of-21 from the field and 1-of-9 from 3-point range.
This was a challenge the head coach expected heading into the season, seeing a roster turned over with the loss of five of its top seven leading scorers.
But that does not mean Holtmann is accepting the struggles as the reality for his team.
“It’s frustrating when you are struggling to score as much as you are struggling to score,” Holtmann said. “I think that is frustrating for guys because you tie so much of yourself to your offense.”
In each of the past two games — both losses for Ohio State — the Buckeyes have struggled with second half scoring. They have combined to shoot 26.7 percent from the field, making only one of their 16 3-point attempts in the final 20 minutes.
To sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson, the offensive inconsistency has not been because of the offense itself. He said the Buckeyes play in a difficult league, leading to no easy shots. He said that part’s fixable.
What isn’t fixable to Wesson is the inconsistency on offense leading to points in the other basket.
“Defense wins games, defense wins championships. There’s not a team that’s going to win any game without defense,” Wesson said. “If shots aren’t going to fall, they aren’t going to fall. But they got to score on the other end.”
In Ohio State’s two consecutive losses to Michigan State and Illinois, the Buckeyes have allowed opponents to shoot 47.1 percent from the field in the second half, making 15-of-27 from inside the 3-point line.
Wesson said this defense is where Ohio State’s game starts. And it’s something that both the Fighting Illini and Spartans saw in the first half, as each shot a combined 36 percent from the field in the first half, scoring 55 points between them.
With the implosion of the defense comes the implosion of the offense, showing a lack of size against opponents, including the Spartans, who recorded eight blocks against the Buckeyes on Sunday.
“I’d like our fours to be a bit longer, but that’s not going to happen,” Holtmann said. “We were not great in finishing in transition and that’s where we get some of our shots blocked, but I want us to continue to be aggressive.”
Size and physicality is something that teams have taken advantage of against Ohio State all season.
Holtmann said Wesson, who played 29 minutes, but was limited to 13 second-half minutes, was fatigued during the game, more so than he has ever seen from the sophomore forward.
Facing Michigan State junior forward Nick Ward and freshman forward Thomas Kithier, after Ward was sidelined with an injury for the majority of the second half, Wesson scored 12 points, the only Ohio State scorer in double-digits, and made 5-of-11 attempts.
But the physicality proved too much for Wesson at times, something he is used to, but is tired of.
“I’m not used to getting calls anyways,” Wesson said. “I get fouled almost every possession if you look at the film.”
Holtmann said it was not just Wesson who looked fatigued. It was the entire team, saying Ohio State looked slow in terms of its pace against the Spartans.
Ohio State had a three-point deficit in its seven-point loss to the Fighting Illini. The Buckeyes has a six-point lead against the Spartans in its 18-point loss Sunday.
“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth because we knew this was a winnable game,” sophomore guard Musa Jallow said. “We just didn’t do enough to pull it out in the second half.”
Whether it’s fatigue or just momentum shifting to the opponent, this storyline has been the only consistent thing for Ohio State in the past two games.