PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't a loss. Far from one, actually. But in the aftermath of Ohio State's 78-59 sleepwalk over Loyola (Md.) Thursday night, the Buckeyes were at a loss trying to explain why it felt like one -- and how a national title contender could be so confusingly inconsistent.
Ever since the Buckeyes smashed Duke in December, we have been waiting for them to reach that level again on any kind of consistent basis. There have been hints of it here and there, but nothing approaching a real identity or swagger. Then came Thursday night, the first game of the Buckeye's NCAA campaign and there was talk of complacency. Coming from a program that has suffered painful Sweet 16 exits in each of the last two seasons, and just spent its prep time receiving messages of urgency from the staff, that's really alarming.
"We weren't dialed in to this game. We came out and saw who we were playing and, even from the warm-ups, guys weren't taking it serious," guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "It was a wake-up call."
"The team as a whole [is] not coming out with the right mindset with teams that we think we can beat, quote-unquote know we can beat," Deshaun Thomas added. "We don't come out with the same mindset as if it was Duke at the beginning of the season."
There are any number of clichés -- survive and advance; it's not how, it's how many -- that exist for nights like this. If the Buckeyes book their ticket to New Orleans in nine days, no one will remember the 18 turnovers and Thad Matta embarrassingly having to reinsert his starters after the overmatched-but-battling Greyhounds got within 11 with 2:18 left. But if they don't, there will be some questions about just how well the Buckeyes are prepared to handle the pressure of expectations. As unfair as it may be to a team that spent most of the season in the top five, there's a sense of underachievement thus far, fueled by an inability to string command performances together.
"I think we're a young basketball team and some guys just don't know what it takes [to consistently play well]," said point guard Aaron Craft. "That's on us, as the quote-unquote veterans on the team, to help them understand what it is."
In some senses, Ohio State does remain a fairly youthful team. Aside from Buford, the rest of the regular rotation is underclassmen. The Buckeyes shouldn't be an immature team, though. Craft, Smith, Jared Sullinger and Thomas (Thursday's star with 31 points and 12 rebounds) have played anywhere from 900 to over 2,100 minutes of major-college basketball. In the modern landscape, this is a very experienced team that doesn't dip into its bench all that often to expose more inexperienced options.
You can't expect a college team to play well every night, but to hear multiple Buckeyes admit they more or less mailed in an NCAA tournament game was disarming. We have seen the potential, know the way they can play, on a number of occasions, but there are only five chances left, maximum, for the Buckeyes to find themselves again.
The first of those comes Saturday against a Gonzaga team that flew cross-country and put an old-fashioned beating on West Virginia, "out-toughing" the Mountaineers at their own game. After the game, the Zags took plenty of pleasure in having shed some of the West Coast soft label that trails not only them, but all teams from the region. You'd have to imagine they sat back in their hotel rooms Thursday night and saw an Ohio State team that they think they can play with, one that senior center Robert Sacre and junior forward Elias Harris think they can push around and frustrate.
We'll see Saturday what these Buckeyes are made of, what they learned from Thursday night, in what's more or less the opener to a three-game season. Will they really "count this [game] as a loss in our eyes," as Thomas said, noting that Ohio State typically responds better to a defeat? Or will they not learn the lesson in time, and feel the lasting pain a one-and-done event can provide in a heartbeat? When Jared Sullinger announced he was returning for his sophomore season, the visions weren't of five Big Ten losses and a 2-seed in the NCAAs. They certainly weren't of a Round of 32 defeat, but that's in play if the Buckeyes don't bring something better to the table quickly.
Tucked in a front corner of the locker, at the end of a short conversation, the team's lone senior provided a sense that he, at least, knows what's at stake. Buford was there last year when the Buckeyes bitterly went down to 4-seed Kentucky, and he still feels the sting of the upset to Tennessee suffered by the Evan Turner-led squad in 2010. He knows the next loss will be his last, and he knows what it will take to avoid it.
"We need to approach every game like [it's Duke] for the rest of the season," Buford said, "or we'll probably exit early again."