Take, for example, the smattering of comments from players who were asked to explain away the team’s quarterfinal loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament on March 13. The Buckeyes dug themselves into a double-digit deficit in the first half and cut the lead down only to watch it balloon again before another incomplete comeback.
That loss mirrored similar efforts against Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan in the regular season, when the Buckeyes went minutes at a time with disjointed, choppy play as opponents built up sizable advantages. Those defeats gave players plenty of practice in explaining that nothing good comes from the panicky abandonment of head coach Thad Matta’s game plan, and they got to trot out the latest editions of that theme in the locker room after their conference tournament dismissal.
“I think that when we all play in the system, when we all do what we are supposed to do, we have a chance,” senior forward Sam Thompson said. “When we don’t, it’s tough for us… we can go through those stretches when we can’t score for two, three, four, five minutes, so we just have to get it together.”
“We just have to understand that our system is what we build on every day in practice and when we deviate from that it’s never been good,” redshirt freshman guard Kam Williams said. “It’s cost us every game we’ve lost.”
“I think we just got away from playing Ohio State basketball,” freshman guard Jae’Sean Tate said.
Getting out of the system can be triggered something as easy as a missed rotation, Williams said. That error leads to poor rebounding, which can result in a fast break and high-percentage shot for the opponent. In a matter of seconds, an offensive possession turns into two points on the other end.
Inconsistent execution can be temporarily contagious, and an increasing deficit can lead to rash decision-making and forced shots, which only digs a deeper hole.
All things considered, self-awareness is half the battle. The Buckeyes know what has sunk them in losses, and that’s valuable information. What they’re still trying to figure out is why even the tiniest misstep can set off an avalanche of mistakes and why it sometimes doesn’t get corrected until the outcome is too far gone.
“I couldn’t tell you,” freshman phenom guard D’Angelo Russell said when asked why the team seemed to harbor a fondness for digging themselves holes.
Senior center Trey McDonald, as far apart as possible from Russell on the spectrums of age, size and minutes played, did share the star guard’s inability to diagnose why the Buckeyes are plagued with inconsistency.
“It’s just frustrating that we play so well and then just play so bad,” he said. “It’s tough to figure out.”
What makes it more mystifying is that players swear that they practice better than they play when it actually counts. And in the disparity between successes on the practice court and in the games themselves, it’s not just the execution that’s better in practice – it’s the effort, too.
“It’s funny because every day we practice we’re like brothers,” Williams said. “You fight with your brother but then when you get in a fight with somebody else that’s not your brother, you stick up for your brother. We fight each other in practice harder than we fight other teams. We’ve got to start playing in real games like how we play in practice. In practice it’s blood everywhere and people get scratches and bruises, and in the game it’s like we don’t do that.
“It’s frustrating because we know what everybody’s capable of doing in practice. It seems like everybody practices well and we rarely have a bad practice. We come out in the game and we’re sluggish and we’re like, ‘What’s the problem?’ because we’re doing everything well in practice. We’re fighting, we’re playing hard… like I said, we have our best battles in practice. And then in the game we don’t show it. It’s like, what’s going on?”
On the eve of the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes are running out of days and out of practices to figure out a solution to the problems that have prevented them from becoming the team they hope to be. Virginia Commonwealth’s “Havoc” style of play is predicated on forcing mistakes out of opponents.
The Buckeyes have shown a tendency to come undone following miscues, and that won’t be easily covered up against the Rams. With the season on the line, Williams wants to see the Buckeyes be the aggressors for a change.
“We just have to throw the first punch, basically,” he said. “Obviously because we’re Ohio State we get everybody’s first punch, everybody’s best punch. It has to come a point where we draw the line. I feel like right now, we have to draw the line going into the tournament.”
Although its paths are weighted by the successes or failures of teams in the regular season, the NCAA Tournament offers teams at least some semblance of a fresh start. If OSU’s players can solve their biggest problem, it’s not too late to dig themselves out of the hole.