Twelve games in, it looked like this Ohio State team was different.
It’s not — or so it would appear from the Buckeyes’ recent rash of rancid play.
The Buckeyes have dropped four straight after blasting past several top 10 opponents on an early season hot streak, falling to the bottom of the rankings after peaking at No. 2 in late December.
“No one wants to lose, but the reality is, in college basketball, you’re going to lose games,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “The idea is what’s the group made of when that happens?”
It sounds all too familiar.
A season ago, the Buckeyes won 12 of their first 13 games to begin the year, but quickly dropped five straight –– and 6-of-7 –– in January.
That team, Holtmann’s first at Ohio State, was bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With each loss, it appears less likely the Buckeyes will improve on that mark come March.
Ohio State’s free fall from college basketball’s elite tier seems alarming, but for those paying close attention, there were signs all along.
“Am I surprised to see the scores on Sunday of a couple of our Big Ten games? I mean, you can say you’re surprised now, but not really,” Holtmann said. “You’re not surprised with anything.”
Holtmann’s statements from the first several weeks of the season now seem prophetic, as the third-year coach warned that the team wasn’t as far along as the 2018-19 iteration.
That proclamation alone should’ve sounded bells. This past year’s team couldn’t score in transition and was hard-pressed to hit a consistent 3-ball, not to mention suffering from a lack of depth at the four and five.
Though he was a serviceable scoring guard with the capability to heat up fast, outspoken lament for the loss of C.J. Jackson wasn’t coming in spades, and interjected with three four-star prospects coming out of high school, it simply sounded absurd that this year’s team wouldn’t quickly surpass its predecessor.
And the Buckeyes appeared to with 25-point wins against top 10 programs like Villanova and North Carolina, an obliteration of Penn State and another top-tier win against Kentucky.
But it was another warning from Holtmann that should have prompted a tempering of expectations.
He said he didn’t think his team’s red-hot 3-point shooting was going to be sustainable all season, and he was right.
Ohio State shot well above 50 percent from 3 against Villanova and Penn State and sank 10 triples against North Carolina. In each of those games, sophomore guard Duane Washington hit four 3s, and it appeared the streaky scorer –– and the program as a whole –– was in the midst of a serious breakthrough.
But such a drastic change indicated a switch flipped too quickly for the stark improvement to be permanent.
“The way we were shooting early was not realistic,” Holtmann said. “You can’t sustain that over a long season.”
After returning from a two-game absence due to a rib injury, Washington has shot 28 percent from 3 and only a hair better from the field.
Washington’s decline in performance culminated in Saturday’s loss to Indiana, where Holtmann sat him for most of the game, and he didn’t attempt a single shot after shooting 30 the past two games.
“I thought his effort was really poor. I thought his attention to detail was really poor,” Holtmann said. “I said to him, ‘Where are you? You gotta be more locked in than what you are. We need more from you right now.’”
Ahead of the season, Holtmann said senior forward Andre Wesson was shooting the team’s highest percent from 3 in practice. But Wesson is hardly a 3-point specialist or an excellent spot-up shooter, and the ramifications of the team’s streaky shooting has reared its head.
The excitement surrounding the freshmen –– explosive guard D.J. Carton and athletic forwards E.J. Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney –– has dissipated as it becomes more evident that the trio won’t become consistently heavy contributors until further down the line.
It reaffirms what Holtmann said ahead of the season: This team will go as far as its older players –– not its freshmen –– take it.
The problem isn’t with Andre Wesson or his brother junior Kaleb, though, who both have played well despite a frustrating lack of offensive assertiveness in key spots.
Alongside Washington, sophomore guard Luther Muhammad is disappearing on offense like he did in his first year, hitting a whopping 16 percent of his shots during the losing streak while losing a starting spot.
Redshirt junior CJ Walker should be a calming presence with command of the offense as an upperclassman starting point guard, but his play can be erratic as he often looks to create his own shot more than facilitating for others.
But Carton, the only other point guard on the team, has racked up 10 more turnovers than assists during the streak, while shooting 30 percent from the floor.
Sophomore forward Justin Ahrens, occasionally inserted in the lineup in hopes of hitting a 3, is shooting 18.7 percent from behind the line in his past eight games amid a season of setbacks.
Ohio State scored less than 70 points just once during its first 12 games. It has scored less than 60 in each of the past four games.
“We’ve been too predictable, and part of that is maybe some guys struggling,” Holtmann said. “It’s allowed defenses to game plan for one specific thing. We need more diversity. We need more production from more guys.”
Holtmann may not be all that surprised by his team’s struggles, but disappointment will soon become a word that understates the feelings of Buckeye supporters if Ohio State can’t retake shape.