Missing Identity

A rapidly-developing question being asked by the Ohio State faithful is, "what's wrong with the Buckeye basketball team?" Though there are plenty of ways to answer the common question heard over the past week, there's mainly one that makes a ton of sense. Kyle Lamb answers the question with a simple response: identity.

As Thad Matta suddenly yanked most of his Ohio State starters in the closing moments of a gigantic second-half collapse against 7-0 Butler, his normally engergetic self suddenly depicted a frustrated, lethargic demeanor.

And the blank stares of his targeted pupils equally symbolized the look of lifeless cadavers.

The 65-46 thorough undressing of the Buckeyes down the stretch by Butler may have been the horse that broke the camel's back in a season going terribly awry. Until you consider Ohio State (4-3) is just seven games into a season with a roster made up of more than half newcomers.

It's been a systematic failure for Ohio State from the onset. A flurry of turnovers, shooting colder than an Alaskan winter and freshmen greener than a Kentucky pasture have caused panic among fans and frequent hair loss among coaches.

All told, it's an identity crisis for Ohio State.

Or at least an identity situation.

For seven games, it's too soon to be a crisis. But 24 turnovers against Butler, being outscored 48-16 in the last 20:01 of the game is cause for concern, if not an epidemic.

"I told the guys after the game we've got to get back to the drawing board," Matta told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network following the embarrassing meltdown. "This team is nowhere near where it needs to be."

This team is also without an identity.

If there's been a single constant in the Matta-era in Columbus, it's been for better or worse, sink or swim, his teams have had a persona. They've an edge - an attitude about them. They've been clearly defined in personnel and characteristics. Right now, Matta has the bodies but not the souls.

Search high and low around the nation, and you'll be hard-pressed to find more than 10-20 teams with more talent than this Buckeye team. Perhaps that's why Matta reached a boiling point in the waning minutes against his alma-mater this past weekend. He knows it's just a matter of putting all the pieces together.

With three freshmen in a 7-man rotation, and sometimes four in an 8-man, Matta has looked to senior point guard Jamar Butler for leadership and scoring. However, in 30 minutes on black Saturday against Matta's first head coaching gig, Butler scored just 5 points on 1-of-6 shooting and turned the ball over four times drawing the ire of his normally subdued teacher.

It's not as if Butler has done a lot wrong this season. He's the team's second-leading scorer. He's averaging over four assists and four rebounds per game. And, Butler is averaging just 7 points less than the entire backcourt of Ohio State.

Therein lies the problem.

The Buckeyes are missing another scorer and a trademark to identify them by.

Are the Buckeyes a shooting team? Not by shooting 32.8 percent from 3-point range and 42 percent overall.

Are the Buckeyes a physical, pound-it-inside type of team? Not when you're being out-rebounded and your entire frontcourt averages 30 points a game. There are talented frontcourt stars (Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter), but the individuals are better at this point than the sum of all parts.

Ohio State isn't a running team. They're not terribly adept at taking care of the basketball - 13 turnovers per contest. They simply lack the identity of the teams that were busy winning back-to-back Big Ten Championships.

Nationally, Ohio State ranks No. 200 in adjusted offensive efficiency. That measures points per 100 possessions and adjusts it for the competition you're playing. Points per possession also takes into account tempo because while some teams may get 20 more possessions per game than another team, this simply stacks up how much you score in 100 possessions, regardless of how long it takes.

Three years ago, you knew from the get-go Ohio State would live-and-die by the 3-pointer. Two seasons ago, Ohio State spread the floor and used ball screens to hit the outside shot. Sometimes they simply pounded it in to All-Big Ten Terence Dials and let him carry the load. Last season, the Buckeyes again spread the floor, but beat teams with individual moves and often was effective with spacing, penetration and two-man basketball.

On a nightly basis, there's really not yet an established mindset with this core of players. Butler has tried to light a fire under his own belly to spark his teammates, but the fire has been nothing more than a dim flicker. Koufos, the prize McDonald's All-American and future first-round NBA draft pick is neither seasoned nor consistent enough to feast inside like Dials. David Lighty, meanwhile, is a budding guard but not confident enough to pick up the slack while Jon Diebler struggles to find the basket.

There have been flashes. False alarms.

Sluggish trends. Roller coaster rides.

Steady heartbeats. Then, flatline.

But consider this: Matta is not a stranger to this problem. Just as his teams are not immune to sporadic offensive execution given the freedom in which they operate, he's also no stranger to righting a seemingly sinking ship.

Last season, Ohio State picked up the biggest bittersweet obstacle of all - 7-footer Greg Oden. A team that was playing without conscience for 6 weeks suddenly returned to deliver a big stalemate to an offensive stalwart. Ohio State went from feast to famine as they learned how to play with a unique presence.

Following the Buckeyes last regular season loss last January 9 in Madison against Wisconsin, Ohio State reeled off 22-straight victories as the offense began improving game-by-game with Oden's involvment. By March, Ohio State was going full-throttle despite near-disastrous finishes in the NCAA Tournament against Xavier and Tennessee.

A better example of Matta's teams finding a niche late in the season was his final campaign at Xavier. As late as January 31, 2004, the Musketeers arrived back in the Queen city following a tough 74-67 defeat of in-state rival Dayton. They returned with a paltry 10-9 record, and staring an N.I.T. bid square in the face if fortunate to receive any postseason whatsoever.

An amazing thing happened: led by seniors Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, as well as freshmen Justin Cage, Justin Doellman and Dedric Finn, Xavier regrouped and became a cohesive unit. Though perhaps that team took the cliche "not wanting to peak too early," to a bit of an extreme, they won 16 of their last 17 games before ultimately falling just shy of a Final Four bid by losing 66-63 to Duke.

It's certainly true the Atlantic 10 grind is not quite as demanding as the Big Ten, more easily allowing such a run as that. However, it's also not in dispute that this Ohio State club possesses more talent and potential than that over-achieving squad that finished 26-11 sending Matta on his way up I-71 as the Buckeyes' coach just three months later.

But even for the pragmatic at heart, that trip down memory lane is ancient history and only slightly relevant to the challenges plaguing the 2007-08 Ohio State team. For the Buckeyes to kick-start their season before it spirals out of control, or at least, out of their grasp, they must get back to basics.

"It's one of those things that we've just got to continue to find ways to get each guy better, get this team better," Matta added after the game. "When this happens then hopefully we'll be a good basketball team.

It starts with decision-making, taking care of the basketball and playing smart. Ohio State has to find timely and effective passing and better ball control.

Then, the next Achilles heel - shooting, should partially take care of itself once the shots are taken with patience and at more appropriate times. Ohio State ranks in the lower third of college basketball in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. To make matters worse, the Buckeyes rank in the lower quadrant in all of collegiate hoops at the rate in which they even get to the charity stripe.

So in summation, this team without a known focal point thus far is only mildly taking care of the ball, rushing shots after very few passes, missing these shots without drawing fouls, and when they do finally get to the free throw line, are missing those too. That's like a quadruple-whammy.

But hey, the fact the Buckeyes' losses are to undefeated North Carolina, Texas A&M and Butler (combined 21-0) is cause for optimism to get through that brutal stretch with some hope for the near-future. In other words, it's enough to take that embittered complexion right off his face.

And maybe enough to put the missing personality back into his team he's so dearly lacking.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories