After the Buckeyes dropped a 25-point road loss at the hands of Purdue on the last day of February, head coach Thad Matta commented that he had brought boys to a man's fight. The criticism stuck with his players, two of whom said March 2 that they were taking the coach's words to heart.
As losers of four of their last five games, the Buckeyes have a pretty good idea what is wrong with the team as it heads into the final week of conference play.
"In the beginning of the year, granted we had (David Lighty) but even when Dave went out, I think we had a certain swagger on defense," OSU guard Jon Diebler said. "Teams feared going against our defense and right now I don't think teams fear going against it. I think they have confidence saying, ‘Purdue shot (nearly) 60 percent. Why can't we do that?' "
After showing a few leaks earlier in the season that required patching, OSU's 3-2 match-up zone has required some wholesale changing of parts in the past five games. Entering a Valentine's Day contest against Wisconsin team one game removed from a six-game losing streak, the Buckeyes had held opponents to a combined 42.3 shooting percentage through 22 games.
Beginning with that Wisconsin game, the Buckeyes now allowed their last three opponents to shoot a combined 47.6 percent from the floor. OSU's opponents have also upped their scoring average from 61.1 points entering the five-game stretch to 66.2 points, but the most damaging statistic has come from beyond the three-point arc.
From deep, OSU's opponents are connecting on better than half of their three-point attempts in the last five games – 52.4 percent on 55-of-105 shooting. Entering the stretch, the Buckeyes had allowed their opponents to shoot just 32.4 percent for the season.
"Illinois, Penn State, they hit some shots that we would probably kill our guys if they shot," Matta said. "Those things went in for them."
Tonight, as the Buckeyes face Iowa (9 p.m., Big Ten Network), they will be going against a team that has taken the second-most three-pointers among Big Ten teams this season. Not only that, but the Hawkeyes – currently ranked next-to-last in the conference standings – hit 14 of 28 three-pointers (50.0 percent) against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
After that, OSU closes out the regular season at home against Northwestern – one of the teams that has added to its recent slide by shooting 52.0 percent (13 of 25) from three in a three-point win Feb. 18.
If ever there was a time to man up and guard the three-point arc, this might be it.
"It's huge, it really is," Matta said. "You look at what (Iowa) did in game one and how many threes they attempted. No question about it, we've got to guard the basketball, guard shooters and do a better job at that."
The question now is why teams have been so successful as of late. One line of thought is that teams have so successfully scouted OSU's zone defense that it is now easier to spot the gaps and create open looks. Another is that the Buckeyes – who have two guards averaging more than 35 minutes per game and a third averaging more than 28 – are simply getting too tired to keep up with the ball being whizzed around the perimeter.
Diebler admitted that the team's perimeter defense up top has been lacking but denied that it has anything to do with tired legs.
"We could use that as an excuse, but we're fighting to try and get in the tournament," he said. "You can't use that as an excuse because of the situation we're in right now. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Am I doing everything I can on the defensive end?'
"We have to man up and get it done."
There's that word again.