Although they have ascended to the nation's top spot in the polls after opening Big Ten play with a 5-0 record, things have not gone smoothly for the Buckeyes in recent weeks. Their last four victories have all come by five points or less in contests in which OSU held a double-digit lead in the second half.
Head coach Thad Matta has frequently spoken about trying to raise his team's defensive efforts for the course of an entire game. So it was that when the Buckeyes returned to the practice gym Monday after having a day of rest following Saturday's nail-biting victory against Penn State, things were changed up a little bit.
"We went back to the first day of practice," freshman forward Jared Sullinger said. "There were a lot of drills we haven't been doing since the first day of practice and he threw them back in yesterday. I felt like as a team we grasped those drills and that's what we've been missing."
Sullinger described the drills as toughness ones, the kind where players have to buckle down and play defense for the entire length of a possession.
As the season goes on, Matta tailors his practices to account for the fact that he does not employ a deep bench. In an effort to save legs, the focus is on going hard for a short period of time rather than expanding lots of energy in a long practice.
Not so for Monday's session.
"As the season went on we'd do our passing, we'd do a little bit of defense and then we go to offensive execution and we're out," Sullinger said. "Yesterday we went back to the beginning of practice, did our passing and then it was defense for about an hour and offense for about an hour. It was a great practice as a team."
The numbers say it all. Through 13 non-conference games, the Buckeyes ranked first in the Big Ten by allowing 53.8 points per contest. In Big Ten games played as of Jan. 16, OSU was fourth in the conference with an average of 65.8 points allowed per contest.
In addition, Big Ten teams are shooting 48.2 percent against the Buckeyes this season. That figure puts OSU eighth in the conference in field goal percentage defense and would be the worst single-season during Matta's tenure in Columbus. Last season, conference foes shot 42.1 percent against OSU, rankings the Buckeyes fourth in the Big Ten in that category.
It has been part of the reason the Buckeyes have found themselves clinging to leads or forced to rally in their last four games. The end result, however, has been what Matta is primarily looking for: victory.
"I think this: when you haven't lost yet, you've got to create things, you've got to find things to be upset about," the coach said after Saturday's 69-66 win against Penn State. "The way we played today in some stretches, those are going to be easy to find. I like the alternative a lot better than the other one, that's for sure."
Matta said each situation has been different because the Buckeyes have faced different styles of opponents. His concern is about the effort his players are giving at the defensive end.
"They're making shots, but I'm not convinced we're doing all we can to contest them," he said. "That's one of the big things we're working on."
As an example, Matta mentioned freshman Deshaun Thomas' defensive efforts against the Nittany Lions. A forward who has not shied away from shooting when inserted into the game from the bench, Thomas saw 11 minutes of action and missed all three of his shot attempts.
It was his defense that got him the hook, his coach said.
"On Sunday he wasn't as ready as he needed to be," Matta said. "Deshaun can score. I think his defense has really grown but he gave up a straight line drive the other day because he wasn't mentally ready to go. He knew it afterwards and had a great practice (Monday)."
Freshman point guard Aaron Craft said the Buckeyes are still learning how to play defense as a unit rather than individuals.
"We'll have time when some people play great individual defense but it's five guys out there," he said. "We all need to be connected. When one person doesn't do the thing they're supposed to that's when the whole defense breaks down."
Craft said the first step toward addressing the situation was Monday's practice.
"We definitely need to get back to how we were playing defense," he said. "I think we took a great step in practice (Monday). We definitely got after it and got back to how we were doing things earlier in the season. That's a great step for us."