What a difference a month makes.
With March fast approaching, Ohio State is floundering. Losers of their last two to unranked opponents on the road, the Buckeyes seem to have squandered an opportunity to finish in the top four of the Big Ten standing and the two-round bye in the conference tournament that comes with it.
So, what changed? Certainly the fact that four of Ohio State’s last five games have come on the road hasn’t helped. Teams also appear to be figuring out better ways to defend Buckeyes’ star D’Angelo Russell. The three-game suspension of Marc Loving, the team’s second leading scorer, surely wasn’t a positive.
Loving was suspended by the athletic department for undisclosed reasons and missed road games against Purdue and Rutgers and a home contest with Penn State.
While it would be unfair to point to Loving’s suspension and his subsequent struggles to reenter the lineup in the two games since he has returned to the court as the sole reason for the team’s deficiencies, the sophomore’s absence was certainly untimely.
The Buckeyes went 2-1 without the sophomore forward, but have lost both games since his return. Before his suspension Ohio State was scoring 73.3 points per game in the conference. In the five games since, the team has put up just 65 points per game.
In his two games back Loving has put up a total of four points. He played just five minutes against Michigan State and did not score, the first game he was held scoreless this season. In fact, his two games back he has put up two of his three lowest scoring games of the year.
Entering the game against Michigan on Feb. 22, one Ohio State lost 64-57, head coach Thad Matta said he thought Loving was getting back in a groove and that Keita Bates-Diop, the player who filled in for Loving during the suspension, would be ready for the Wolverines.
“We’re going to need Marc and obviously Keita,” the coach said. “Keita has had a great week of practice and the more the merrier.”
Bates-Diop played 19 minutes against Michigan and was one of three Buckeyes in double figures with 12. Loving played 17 minutes, but did not look to be in rhythm and scored just four points, missing all three of his three-point attempts.
The three-point shooting is what the Buckeyes most need from Loving. He has missed all four of his attempts from distance since returning from suspension. Despite those misfires he is still the second-leading three-point shooter in the conference, hitting 50.6 percent of his tries from distance.
His ability to spread the floor, providing an option behind the three-point line that the opposition has to respect, gives Russell more room to operate, something that has clearly been lacking in recent games.
If the Buckeyes are going to recover from their recent poor stretch they will need Loving to round back into form. Ohio State is 12-0 this season when Loving scores more than 10 points, and considering the team’s scoring struggles in recent games, they need the sophomore to be closer the 11.7 points per game he was averaging before being sidelined than the 2.0 per contest he has put up upon returning.