Ohio State last won a basketball game on Jan. 4. That was 19 days ago. That is a long time for any team to go without winning a single game, particularly one that hadn't lost any of the 15 that it played previously. During their four-game losing streak, the Buckeyes' status as Final Four contenders has been seriously called into question, and as the team returned to practice in advance of tonight's meeting with similarly struggling Illinois, it was clear that something hard to define yet uncomfortable was in the air.
Indeed, this is Ohio State's longest losing streak in six years, and it has dropped a team that hasn't finished lower than sixth in the Big Ten in head coach Thad Matta's first nine seasons in Columbus into a tie for eighth place. So how did the Buckeyes get here? What is wrong with a team that was 15-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country less than three weeks ago?
Borrowing from the esteemed philosopher Russell Hammond: To begin with, everything.
“Most definitely, it’s across the board," Matta said Wednesday. "Straight through."
The easiest issue to diagnose is the offense. In each game of its four losses -- at Michigan State, vs. Minnesota, at Iowa and at Nebraska -- the Buckeyes have had a turnover percentage of at least 18.8. They had only been at or above that mark in three of their previous 15 games. It's not easy for an offense to function at peak efficiency when a team can't take care of the ball.
The shooting has been similarly underwhelming. Ohio State has shot 40.3 percent from the floor during its skid and scored less than a point per possession in three of the four games; it was under 1.0 PPP just three times in the previous 15. Some of that may have to do with the seeming lack of a consistent, create-his-own-shot scoring threat on the roster.
“I think honestly we need a couple to go down for us and regain a little momentum and a little confidence in our stroke,” Matta said. “It’s one of those deals that sometimes the best answer is make a couple and everything sort of takes care of itself.”
Still, it’s the neutering of a voracious defense that ought to be most alarming. Ohio State has allowed .97 points per possession or more in each outing during the current losing streak; opponents had hit that mark just once in the previous 15 games.
The last four Buckeyes foes each had an effective field goal percentage of 56.6 percent or better. Teams had eclipsed that mark against Ohio State six times during the 15-0 start, so it’s no massive swoon. But it is a rather consistent piercing of a defense that has demonstrated some uncharacteristic sloppiness.
“We’re not doing a good enough job of providing support or being active, we’re not attacking the ball in the paint the way we need to,” Matta said. “Basketball has become driving, that’s what everyone does. We obviously have to do a better job of guarding the ball, keeping guys in front, but we also have to give more support.”
That is crucial, because a lack of defensive efficiency cuts to the heart of who the Buckeyes are. “It’s not so much at this point getting people’s best shots as it is us not playing our best basketball,” Thompson said. “Us not having our minds right and being ready to play. We’re making some mistakes we shouldn’t be making. We’re doing some things uncharacteristic of our basketball team and of the personnel we have on our team. At this point it’s about correcting the things we do and not worrying about anyone else.”
It’s the desperation of March, come early for Ohio State. “I’ve been here before,” Matta said. “This is my life that I’ve chosen. The thing I’m trying to get these guys to understand -- let’s get back to playing the way we’re supposed to play. Not that it’s going to guarantee us a win. But it increases our chances greatly.”