Ohio State Has Become Team in Search of Backbone

Bruce Hooley

Ohio State's last-second loss to Minnesota three days ago finally made the slump OSU has been in for a month go away.

Oh, the Buckeyes' problems are still very real, it's just that six losses in seven games has made it implausible to continue selling their woes as abnormal or a departure from who they truly are.

Simply put, they're not in a slump. They're just not an elite team any more.

Entering a 6:30 p.m. Sunday game at Northwestern, Ohio State is tied for 11th with Michigan among 14 Big Ten teams. Only the Wildcats, at 1-7, have won fewer conference games than the Buckeyes, who are 2-6 and scraping to get back close enough to .500 that they can claim an NCAA Tournament berth.

The early-season wins over Cincinnati, Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky that once fueled Ohio State's rise as high as No. 2 in the nation mock them now. That team is no where to be found, and if it isn't found soon, the Buckeyes will have an embarrassment beyond falling out of the Top 25.

If they don't get rolling, they won't even make the NCAA Tournament.

That was unfathomable the way they started the season, and it's inexcusable given their depth. Then again, maybe their depth explains their primary issue.

Part of the Buckeyes' problem may be they have too many guys they can go to without having a single go-to guy.

"I think they wanted it,” Holtmann said of a clutch shot at crunch time against Minnesota. “It’s a matter of we’ve got to find it within some of them ... I think it’s something we’re still processing through with this group.”

Kaleb Wesson is supposed to be OSU's alpha male.

He leads in scoring (14) and rebounding (9.6), but is he more of an impact player for the Buckeyes this year than last year when his averages were essentially the same ((14.6 pts, 6.9 reb.) and he weighed 35 pounds less?

Wesson moves better this season, is in foul trouble less often, but also now strays farther on the perimeter more often. He shoots a very respectable 41.3% from three-point range, but is that where the Buckeyes need him most often?

A year ago, when there was more land mass on Wesson's southern hemisphere, he could and did operate more efficiently in the post.

Thursday against Minnesota, when OSU had the ball late in a tie game, he was on the three-point line with the dribble, then behind it on a catch-and-shoot, go-ahead three-point attempt.

He missed, just like he did on a similar open look that would have likely brought a win over Wisconsin.

Sophomore Duane Washington, freshman D.J. Carton, junior C.J. Walker...all have had their moments this season, and each was more determined to get to the basket and create their own offense on Thursday.

But none have delivered in a big moment yet, and so when Ohio State is in a tight spot, Holtmann is guessing who he can rely on.

That wasn't the case in his first season at OSU, when the ball had to find Keita Bates-Diop, or last year, when senior guard C.J. Jackson outside or Wesson inside were options 1 and 1A.

"We've got to find that," Holtmann said. "We have young guards. None of those guys have been in that position. In a lot of ways, you only get to that point by going through it and being in those situations."

Time is evaporating quickly as he waits for someone to step forward and assume the leadership role in times of duress.

"We've just got to figure it out," Walker said. "That's the only thing that I can pretty much say. We did have it rolling those first 10, 11 games and we just somewhere hit a slump, so we've just got to get out of it.”

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