What early-season signs did we miss as Ohio State racked up wins before losing streak?

1 month ago The Columbus Dispatch

What early-season signs did we miss as Ohio State racked up wins before losing streak?play

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Video: Ohio State's Chris Holtmann after a loss at Purdue

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann's full postgame press conference from Feb. 19, 2023, after an 82-55 loss at Purdue.

Adam Jardy, The Columbus Dispatch

The potential for a difficult season was always high on the list of potential results for the 2022-23 Buckeyes.

With four freshmen and three transfers all expected to play significant roles in the primary rotation, coach Chris Holtmann’s sixth season was forecasted as one of change with the potential for better basketball to be played as the season stretched into its final days. Getting there, though, would require growth through adversity and, as Holtmann put it during fall camp, “normalizing struggle” for his young players.

The adversity hasn’t just hit, though. It’s unpacked its bags, thrown its feet on the coffee table and ordered desert. After playing its way into the Associated Press top 25 during the early portion of the season, Ohio State fought No. 1 Purdue to the final seconds in a two-point loss on Jan. 5 and has won just one game since. The Buckeyes will host Penn State on Thursday having lost eight straight and 13 of their last 14 games to sit at 11-16 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten.

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How did the Buckeyes get here? It’s a long story, but in hindsight, here were some signs that Ohio State’s 10-3 record and 2-0 start in the Big Ten entering that games against the Boilermakers might have been misleading.

Look who the wins were against

There was not a lot of wiggle room when it came to games Holtmann could choose to schedule this season. With a 20-game Big Ten slate, a three-game commitment to the Maui Invitational and ongoing commitments to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the CBS Sports Classic, Ohio State was left with six games to fill out its regular season.

Typically during Holtmann’s tenure, there’s been at least one non-conference game of note. There was a home-and-home with Cincinnati and a home game against Villanova, albeit as part of the Gavitt Games. This year, though, Holtmann surveyed the situation and went full cupcake.

Ohio State basketball: Chris Holtmann: We want to schedule tougher nonconference games at Value City Arena

The six-game home slate of Robert Morris, Charleston Southern, Eastern Illinois, St. Francis (Pa.), Maine and Alabama A&M featured five teams ranked No. 300 or worse nationally according to KenPom.com. The lone outlier was just barely on the right side of 300: Robert Morris came to Ohio State ranked No. 294.

None of those teams were serious contenders to do more than allow the young Buckeyes to work up a sweat and build some confidence without real fears of a season-destroying loss. And those results provided six of those first 10 wins.

San Diego State was the first of many similar losses

The first real test of the season came inside the Lahaina Civic Center when the Buckeyes faced No. 17 San Diego State on the opening day of the Maui Invitational. A physical, veteran team, the Aztecs took the lead with 12:37 remaining in the first half and never trailed again on their way to an 88-77 win.

But after Ohio State fell behind by 15 points during the first half, it rallied – briefly – and used a 16-6 second-half run to pull within 51-47 with 13:28 to play. Rather than call timeout, though, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher let his veterans play. What came next was a script the Buckeyes have followed for much of the season: needing a stop and another score to make things interesting, they allowed a wide-open 3-pointer to make it a three-possession game. This time, it was Brice Sensabaugh who lost Micah Parrish for a wide-open shot.

Then Isaac Likekele missed a layup. San Diego State got another 3. Nobody came to accept Likekele’s inbounds pass, it was easily stolen and laid in for two more points, and Holtmann called timeout to stem the bleeding. After getting within four points, Ohio State surrendered eight points in 39 seconds and any hopes of a comeback were dashed.

Sound familiar?

Justice Sueing scores a career-high 33 points, but…

Ohio State left Hawai’i in high spirits thanks to consecutive wins and a career night for island native Justice Sueing. From a dunk on Ohio State’s first possession of the game to another dunk with about a minute remaining, the sixth-year forward and team captain looked to have shaken off the injury that cost him all but two games one year prior.

The final stat line was impressive: 33 points on 19 shots, 8 for 8 from the free-throw line and a game-high eight rebounds in the 80-73 win. The one outlier: Sueing was just 1 for 5 from 3-point range in the win, dropping him to 3 for 21 (14.3%) from deep on the season. A career 31.3% shooter from deep entering the season who had shot a career-best 36.1% during his healthy season with the Buckeyes two years ago, the expectation was that he’d eventually get back to around his career average.

Justice Sueing: Ohio State's Justice Sueing embracing homecoming vibes at Maui Invitational

That hasn’t happened, and it’s allowed teams to guard him – and, by extension, his teammates – differently. Sueing enters Thursday’s game with Penn State shooting 22.9% from 3. He has the second-highest offensive usage rate on the team according to KenPom, and with teams no longer respecting his jumper and sagging off of his drives Sueing’s effectiveness has dropped significantly. His free-throw rate, which measures a player’s ability to get to the line, is at 32.5 – well below his career-high mark of 55.9 set two seasons ago.

Sueing is far from the only player to struggle offensively this season, but his integral role in this season’s plans has been arguably the most pronounced, and that started with the inability to connect consistently from deep.

The Eastern Illinois game

At the time, it was easily explained away as a young team overlooking an overmatched foe with a trip to Maui up next on the schedule. Or maybe just the boredom that can come with playing a non-marquee opponent in the early portion of the schedule. Whatever it was, Ohio State’s third game of the season provided plenty of foreshadowing into what was to come for the Buckeyes.

Ahead 21-5 with 9:15 left in the first half, the Buckeyes would go scoreless for 5:25 and allow Eastern Illinois to put together a 10-0 run to pull within 21-15. Against a team ranked 355th nationally according to KenPom, Ohio State went into the break with a six-point lead, having taken 18 of its 29 shots from 3-point range and relying on 13 points from Brice Sensabaugh off the bench to keep the Panthers at bay.

The offense was stagnant, and while the second half got better, the 65-43 win felt more confusing than decisive for a game against a low-major opponent that has posted a 9-20 record entering a Wednesday night game with Morehead State.

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