Coach Thad Matta's team has lost its defensive identity over the past four games.
Coming into Sunday’s game at Wisconsin, the Ohio State Buckeyes had everything to play for.
They were tied with the Badgers and the Wolverines for third in the Big Ten race, had yet to notch a significant road win and had the shadow of a 1-6 record against ranked teams looming over them.
With the regular season essentially hanging in the balance, if nothing else, you could’ve at least banked on effort from the blue-collar Buckeyes, right?
Wrong. Ohio State looked unconscious in their 71-49 demolition by the Badgers.
And even though its offense—which has been ground and analyzed to a pulp this season—wasn’t efficient, it was actually its defense, the backbone of the Ohio State program, which betrayed the team.
"These are beginning-of-the-year mistakes and mental errors," Aaron Craft said of Ohio State's defensive lapses to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We need to hold each other accountable."
After all, less than a month ago in Columbus, a 49-point offensive effort from the Buckeyes would’ve at least netted them an overtime game. Ohio State actually won the first meeting, 58-49, holding the Badgers to just 36 percent shooting,
But on Sunday, Wisconsin managed 52.7 percent from the field on 29-of-55 shooting. Its offense hummed as it beat defenders off the bounce, made the extra pass and recorded 16 assists in the rout.
Watch as Wisconsin moved the ball inside and out, exposing Ohio State's interior depth.
Following the game, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta told Bob Baptist of the Columbus Dispatch that he openly questioned his team's commitment during one first-half timeout:
Where’s our defense? I don’t understand. I don’t know who’s in your jerseys right now in terms of being where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do.
Sunday’s game wouldn’t have been so demoralizing for Ohio State had it not been a continuation of its last four games, which have seen opposing offenses shoot 49.5 percent from the field (106-of-214). Over that stretch, the Buckeyes’ only win came over Northwestern with losses to Michigan (OT), Indiana and now Wisconsin.
In Ohio State’s previous nine conference games (7-2), the Buckeyes had held teams to just 38 percent shooting (192-of-501), via the school’s game notes.
So what gives?
The Buckeyes aren’t consistent enough on offense to try to beat teams with scoring. If Ohio State is to succeed, it will be because of its effort given on the defensive end.
Against Indiana and Wisconsin, the defensive lapses came from Ohio State’s weak frontcourt. Starting center Amir Williams played a combined 20 minutes in both games, accumulating eight fouls and one point in the process.
When Williams, a decent rim protector, picks up awful fouls (as he did versus Wisconsin), it sets Ohio State’s rotation back since everyone needs to “play up” a man. Forwards were guarding centers, and guards were manning shooters.
Not only does it give the opponent an advantage in the post, but with the ball in the paint, the defense is forced to recover and collapse, thus leaving open the outside shooters. Notice that the Hoosiers and the Badgers shot 14-of-37 from the three-point line, a 38 percent clip.
As far as overall defenders, the Buckeyes really only have three viable options—Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott. All three guards play suffocating defense, fight through screens, rarely relax and usually close out their shooters.
But if Matta plays these three together, the Buckeyes will be undersized and risk Deshaun Thomas picking up fouls in the post.
The rest of the Buckeye defenders have been wholly unimpressive but have played nonetheless, an indication of Matta's limited depth.
Ohio State beat writer Bob Baptist of the Columbus Dispatch was blunt about the Buckeyes' situation:
Question always comes back to this: If bench guys were better than starters, u think Matta wouldn't start them? He wants to win, too.— Bob Baptist (@BBaptistHoops) February 18, 2013
Kindly, Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross have a lot to work on defensively. Both play small for 6'7'' forwards, a significant problem when the frontcourt gets into foul trouble. In the past four games, they've each averaged 2.5 rebounds or less.
In general, the Buckeyes look lethargic. Their offense was anemic on Sunday, and their defense looked lazy. It’s not lost on Thomas either, who questioned the team’s fire to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“The one thing about last year’s team, we had heart. We fought with passion. We trusted each other. This year we don’t know what guys are thinking, we don’t know what guys want.”
With only five games left before the postseason, the Buckeyes would do well to start that process on the defensive end.