The Buckeyes' defense couldn't have gotten much worse.
Ohio State’s 71-49 loss last Sunday to Wisconsin represented the low point of the season so far.
With just five games remaining in the regular season, it wasn’t exactly the ideal time for the Buckeyes to hit rock bottom. But it happened, and following the game, numerous players called the contest an embarrassment. It was gut-check time in Columbus.
The season-low 49 points wasn’t even the most troubling aspect. Deshaun Thomas aside, the Buckeyes’ scoring woes aren’t breaking news.
But 71 points on 52 percent shooting to the Badgers? Those Badgers? The eighth-best scoring team in the Big Ten? That’s beyond disconcerting if you're Thad Matta, whose teams pride themselves on protecting the rim.
Taken in a vacuum, the Buckeyes could’ve lived with an embarrassing road loss. But it marked the fourth-straight game an opponent had shot at least 46 percent against Ohio State. Thad Matta told the Columbus Dispatch:
We’ve got to get back to that. We’ve seen the results. If we’re not going to play defense, we’re not a good basketball team. If we’re going to rely on outscoring people, that’s not going to happen. We have to play defense. Every time we’ve played good basketball, we’ve defended well.
Matta basically summed up Ohio State’s Big Ten and NCAA tournament hopes right there.
Fast forward to Wednesday night. Ohio State hosted Minnesota—reeling in its own right—in a game in which both teams felt like they needed to have.
Instead of insisting that his team put forth a better effort, Matta showed them an inspirational video of recently retired Ray Lewis, fresh off of his Super Bowl victory over the 49ers.
What did Deshaun Thomas take away from Matta’s ploy? “Bad words,” Thomas said to the Columbus Dispatch. “And effort. He said nobody can give you effort but yourself.”
Check out how Ohio State heeded Lewis' plea against Minnesota.
That was the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s stunning loss to Wisconsin. The team looked apathetic.
Not so against the Gophers. The Buckeyes played aggressively, extending their defense well beyond the perimeter. They beat their man to various spots on the court, drawing offensive fouls and they wreaked havoc in the passing lanes—recording 10 steals.
As Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tweeted:
Most noticeably, shooting guard Shannon Scott played suffocating defense on the Gopher guards, snatching three steals and swatting three shots in 26 minutes. He contributed 11 points on the offensive end, a much-needed boost to Thomas, who finished with 19. Aaron Craft and forward Evan Ravenel each had three steals as well.
In total, Ohio State forced 24 miscues, which helped give the Buckeyes a 26-7 advantage in points off of turnovers.
They even seemed to bring a little of Lewis’ attitude to the court, opting to foul Gopher players en route to the hoop rather than give up an easy layup. Maybe it was a little bit of the sting from the Wisconsin game rubbing off, or maybe Lewis’ speech had resonated with them.
Going forward, Ohio State still has major weaknesses. Its offense is still a work in progress, and don’t expect it to find a consistent second-scoring threat from now until the tournament starts. The Buckeyes also lack size in the paint, but defensive concentration and persistence can negate those shortcomings.
As erratic as Ohio State has been, by now it should know that defense isn’t about talent.
It boils down to one word: effort.