If you think you had a bad week, try being an Ohio State basketball player. The Buckeyes dropped consecutive decisions to Michigan State and Iowa in games that showcased an offense as prone to sputtering as a 1970 AMC Gremlin.
A team that averaged 10.3 turnovers per game before heading to East Lansing, Mich., found itself struggling to 38 in the pair of losses. Despite all those empty possessions, OSU was still able to make an epic rally to force overtime against the Spartans and held a lead in the final five minutes against the Hawkeyes.
Even after two of its worst performances of the season, it's hard to doubt Ohio State's defensive mojo. The Buckeyes will get back to making opponents look silly, perhaps as soon as Thursday against a dangerous Minnesota team.
The offense, however, is lagging behind as it seeks someone to assume the mantle left behind by All-American Deshaun Thomas.
The best thing we can say about the OSU offense is that it's balanced. No opponent ever knows who's going to take over the game that night. Of the nine players in the Buckeyes' rotation, backup center Trey McDonald and freshman forward Marc Loving are the only men not to lead the team in scoring this season.
On the other hand, the worst thing we can say about the Ohio State offense is that it's balanced. Like the opponents, Thad Matta and his players never know who's coming to do some work from night to night.
Ross at a Loss
Junior forward LaQuinton Ross leads Ohio State in scoring at 13.6 points per game. He's capable of some strong nights, like when he scored 17 points on only nine shots against North Florida or 23 on 9-of-13 shooting against Central Connecticut State.
This is the same man who missed 12 of 13 shots against Marquette and American and, more recently, 10 of 14 against Nebraska and Michigan State.
Ross looked like he was back on track against Iowa, scoring 22 points, including 12 in the second half. In the final five minutes, however, he may have lit the match that sent OSU's chances up in flames.
With 5:05 left and OSU up by one, Ross air-balled a three-point shot. He then turned the ball over on State's next two possessions, allowing Iowa to build its lead into one it would never relinquish. For the game, Ross handed over five turnovers and committed three avoidable fouls.
This inconsistency, coupled with spotty effort on defense, leaves Matta with a huge dilemma. The notion that an elite college basketball program could bench its leading scorer during crunch time is usually unthinkable, but Ohio State's already been down that road.
“Obviously, we need LaQuinton to play well,” Matta said to Eric Seger of OSU's student paper, The Lantern, following the loss to the Hawkeyes. “We (need) him to take and make some big shots, handle the ball a little bit better.”
Ross sat out the last 15 minutes, including overtime, against Michigan State and watched as Loving and junior Sam Thompson dragged OSU back from the brink.
Rare, indeed, is the national championship contender that has doubts about its leading scorer's reliability. This table compares Ross to the top guns on the last 10 NCAA champions:
|Top Scorers, Ohio State vs. Last 10 NCAA Champions|
|2014||Ohio State||LaQuinton Ross||25.6||13.6||50.0|
|2009||N. Carolina||Tyler Hansbrough||30.3||20.7||52.4|
|2005||N. Carolina||Sean May||26.8||17.5||56.7|
Many of the teams that had the greatest March success were led by dynamic scorers who rarely left the floor. Ross can certainly be the former, but the latter hasn't always applied to him.
Spread Too Thin?
The Buckeye most capable of taking a game by the throat and wrestling it into submission is point guard Aaron Craft. Three-plus years into his career, however, he's proven that he's not going to be the guy who scores 25 points on a hot-shooting night. That is unless he's attacking the rim and drawing 18 free throws, like he did against Ohio University in November.
Fellow senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. sat right alongside Ross in the pivotal moments against Michigan State after likewise suffering through a tough night against Nebraska. The team's only other double-digit scorer (12.2 PPG), Smith has been more consistent than Ross, but not as prone to the impressive 25-point game.
As mentioned above, the Buckeyes make their living on the defensive end, ensuring that they don't have to score all that much to win. A third player consistently getting into double figures would help, though.
Two of the last three national champions—Louisville last season and UConn in 2011—had only two double-figure scorers, but both were led by one of the nation's most dynamic forces. Here's a look at how many players produced for the rest of the last 10:
|Scoring Distribution, Ohio State vs. Last 10 NCAA Champions|
|Year||Team||Team PPG||10+ PPG||7+ PPG|
The Buckeyes are writing a similar blueprint to what Louisville used last season, riding their fierce defense to early success, then hitting a brief mid-season skid. After the Cardinals lost three straight in January, they tasted defeat only once more, and that was a five-overtime marathon at Notre Dame.
During the 16-game winning streak, however, Russ Smith shifted into full-fledged Russdiculous mode. He averaged 19.3 PPG during the streak, including 22.3 in the NCAA tournament.
Can Ross or Lenzelle Smith find that sort of gear? Thompson? Amir Williams? Anybody?
Ohio State's scoring pie is smaller than most of the last decade's champs. It's also being split into more, and smaller, pieces. The best teams appear to fit two molds, either being led by one true big dog or spreading the wealth between a full starting unit.
Anyone on those back-to-back Florida teams was comfortable taking the shot in crunch time. UConn knew it could count on Kemba Walker. Duke knew Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler or Nolan Smith could bury the dagger.
Ohio State has only been truly tested three times this season. Smith took over during a comeback win over Notre Dame. Thompson and Loving spearheaded the Michigan State rally. Against Iowa, Ross gave the lead and then took it away.
A different top-scorer every night can be a great thing for a team, but only if it's got confidence in all of its options. Ohio State, though, is still seeking that trust. Until Thad Matta can have full faith in all his scorers, the Buckeyes will continue to search for an offensive identity.
If they find it, they're a national title contender.
If not, fans should hold off for now on making travel plans for that second tournament weekend.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.