Less than one month ago, Ohio State stared down a mountain of teams beneath it, holding a summit view of the college basketball world with a No. 2 ranking and three 25-point victories against top 10 opponents.
Few foresaw the Buckeyes plummeting off the cliff by Jan. 13, now No. 21 in Monday’s Associated Press Poll. Ohio State has lost four games in a row — two against unranked opponents — and failed to score 60 points in all four contests.
“First thing my coach said to me when I got into coaching 25 years ago is, ‘You’re gonna be happiest when you find a group you can lose with first,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “No one wants to lose, but the reality is in college basketball, you’re gonna lose games. And the idea is: What’s the group made of when that happens?”
Tuesday, the Buckeyes (11-5, 1-4 Big Ten) hope to snap their streak at home against Nebraska (7-9, 2-3).
During its four-game freefall, Ohio State shot 34 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range.
If those were the team’s season numbers, it would rank last and No. 331 in the nation, respectively.
Nebraska represents a chance to kickstart Ohio State’s attack. The Cornhuskers are tied for No. 292 in the country for scoring defense — last in the Big Ten by five points per game — and are No. 181 in opposing field goal percentage.
Freshman forward E.J. Liddell said the team is calmly addressing its issues as the Big Ten slate rolls on.
“I remember my freshman year in high school, we won our first game and lost like seven in a row,” Liddell said. “I’ve lost before. Past two years I’ve been winning a lot, but it’s fine. It’s nothing to worry about. We’ve got a lot more basketball to play and a lot more good opponents to play.”
Offensively, Nebraska’s efficiency reads only slightly better. It ranks No. 10 in the Big Ten for scoring and No. 12 in field goal percentage.
When the Cornhuskers find success, it comes from their guards. Nebraska’s top five scorers all play the position, with senior Haanif Cheatham leading the way at 13.1 points per game.
“They’ve got a really dynamic group of guards that are older and veteran,” Holtmann said. “Really dynamic point guard and wings that have a lot of experience and are really playing well.”
If Nebraska’s guards plan to make a difference in the contest, they’ll need to contend with Ohio State’s Big Ten-best scoring and shooting defense.
Defense is one element of Ohio State’s game that hasn’t been completely shaken by the losing skid. No opponent has surpassed 67 points in the stretch, and only Wisconsin shot more than 33 percent from the field, hitting at a 40-percent clip.
Ohio State’s own guard play currently is colder than a snow cap, with the four who play significant minutes shooting 29 percent with 33 turnovers against 21 assists during the losing streak.
Sophomore guard Duane Washington, the team’s No. 2 scorer, was pulled from Saturday’s loss at Indiana by Holtmann after two minutes. The coach said his effort and defensive play were lacking.
“I felt like he was not prepared to play in a tough environment on the road,” Holtmann said. “I just did not feel like his mind was where it needed to be, and it was pretty evident, even in the short minutes that he played.”
Liddell said the consistent competition of Big Ten play is forcing players to fine-tune their game.
“Details. It’s a lot of details that you have to pick up on in Big Ten play, and how hard you have to play when you’re out there, every second,” Liddell said.
Ohio State will work to rectify its issues against Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Schottenstein Center.