For most who follow the Ohio State basketball program, the Buckeyes’ 74-55 loss at Illinois on Saturday was the latest example of what could become the norm if the problems that have plagued them against top foes are chronic.
Head coach Thad Matta sees it as an outlier.
“I have to be honest, I had to throw (the Illinois game) out,” Matta said. “We did things that were so uncharacteristic. I said to the guys, ‘I am not sure who was in your jerseys in this game.’
“I am not taking anything away from Illinois – they were fabulous that day. There were just things that happened that you’re saying, ‘That can’t happen.’ First play of the game, Lenzelle (Smith Jr.) dribbles down and slips and falls and it’s like, ‘Where are we going with this thing?’”
If Ohio State wants to prove Matta right, it will have to be with its jump shot.
Because as long as OSU’s offense is Deshaun Thomas and hardly anyone else, the Buckeyes likely won’t resemble the Final Four contender many experts tabbed them to be before the beginning of the season.
The proof is there. The Buckeyes have played three ranked opponents this season and have lost all three games. And there’s also a common denominator – Ohio State shot less than 34.0 percent in all three of those games with Thomas being the only reliable offensive threat.
And so the fall from grace has begun.
No longer are the Buckeyes the top-five team they were to start the season, falling to No. 15 in the Associated Press poll released on Monday. Additionally, they are already a game behind the pacesetters in the Big Ten standings with games vs. No. 2 Michigan and at No. 22 Michigan State looming in mid-January.
The loss to Illinois served as the microcosm for most of the entire season so far. Thomas was able to score – he finished with a team-high 24 points – but the Buckeyes had no other offensive alternative to whom they could turn.
The offensive imbalance against premier foes is evident in the statistics. During losses to Duke, Kansas and Illinois, Thomas averaged 18.6 points per game. The Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer – Aaron Craft and Smith vs. Duke, Shannon Scott against Kansas, and Craft vs. Illinois – managed an average of only 12.3 points in those contests.
Still, OSU head coach Thad Matta believes there is no deeper meaning than players going through a stretch when the basketball simply will not fall.
“I have looked at the film (of all three losses) since we have played those games and (there isn’t) anything I can say like, ‘Boy, it happened here or here or here,’ besides maybe a ball doesn’t go into the basket,” Matta said.
Matta addressed his team after losing to the Illini and expressed his displeasure for the way his team started off the game. It wasn’t the Buckeyes’ lack of efficient jump shooting that stood out to the head coach, but rather not being prepared enough mentally at the start before not being able to "snap ourselves out of it in time.”
"We just have to take a better approach to it. Before the game, our minds weren't really there,” Scott said. “We just can't go out and play. We have to have a game plan and follow that the right way.”
In an attempt to mix things up in tonight’s game at Purdue, Matta said he’d consider switching the starting lineup. That could mean adding Scott to the lineup at point guard, particularly because the sophomore’s quickness off the bench has helped the Buckeyes drum up offense in transition in shorter spurts.
“The motivation would be, I want to attempt to get off to a good start in the game,” Matta said. “Finding those five guys that have a flow to them.”
It still comes down to making shots.
And It’s not that the Buckeyes don’t have offensive weapons that have shown proficiency in scoring in certain instances this season, Ohio State is just hoping to identify any player not named Thomas who can do it consistently.
Thomas leads OSU in scoring with 20.2 points per game, but Smith’s average of 11.4 made him the only other Buckeye averaging double figures in scoring.
Ross (8.9), Craft (8.5) and starting forward Sam Thompson (7.1) have each led the Buckeyes in scoring in at least one game this season, but none has proved he can be counted on consistently to produce the offensive output the Buckeyes need to beat premier teams.
Simply put, with only a handful of exceptions, Ohio State has not shot the basketball very well all season. Only four times in 14 games have the Buckeyes shot better than 50 percent as a team, and they were at 45.5 percent for the season following a 33.3-percent showing against Illinois.
“My biggest concern (against Illinois) isn’t that we didn’t win the game. I have lost before,” Matta said. “We just didn’t play as well as I wanted us to play. But I think this team is going to get better. There is no doubt in my mind. We have 16 more battles in the Big Ten, so from that perspective we are going to get better. I have great kids, kids that care and kids that want to be players.”
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