Remember when Ohio State was undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country after an impressive undefeated nonconference mark and two wins to open up Big Ten play?
Didn’t think so.
Believe it or not, it was merely a week ago, on Jan. 7, when things looked rosier than Aaron Craft’s cheeks for the basketball Buckeyes. Suddenly, with two consecutive conference losses to Michigan State and Iowa, the general cheer that surrounded the program after such a perfect start has been completely sapped.
This certainly isn’t the time to start sounding the alarm bells, because the sky isn’t falling. However, expectations were quite high for this veteran-laden team before the season started, and a flawless mark in nonconference play did nothing to lower the bar. There are some concerns that have to be weighing on Thad Matta’s mind right now.
For one, Ohio State was never really tested in the first 15 games outside of the contest against Notre Dame in which the Buckeyes were outplayed for 39 minutes before a miraculous comeback. Now that the teeth of the Big Ten schedule is upon us, there are some serious issues that are starting to rear their ugly head that could have possibly been corrected with a more difficult nonconference slate.
The fact that the Buckeyes came out with a complete lack of urgency at Michigan State to the point that Dan Dakich was calling them out during the broadcast was not encouraging. The comeback was valiant in one of the most difficult venues in the country, but there are no moral victories when you have Ohio State emblazoned on the front of your chest, especially since Shannon Scott had a layup to win the game that was blocked.
However, there isn’t much shame in losing at Michigan State, even if there was a lack of urgency for 35 minutes. The real issues that may prevent this team from accomplishing its goals of a Big Ten title and trip to the Final Four were glaringly apparent at home against Iowa.
As of this writing, the Buckeyes rank 127th in the country in rebounds per game. The Hawkeyes pounded the glass in Columbus, Ohio, out-rebounding Matta’s squad 40-31. Iowa also managed to grab 12 offensive rebounds and scored a handful of critical second-chance baskets down the stretch.
Amir Williams has played much better this season than at any point in his career, but the overall rebounding that Ohio State has put on display this year is worrisome. The Big Ten will make a team that struggles rebounding the ball pay more than any other conference with its physicality and strength on the interior.
Perhaps even more concerning than the rebounding deficiency is the way in which Iowa came back. The Buckeyes held a nine-point lead in the second half, but the Hawkeyes switched to a zone defense in the final minutes and completely shut down Ohio State’s offensive production.
Where will Ohio State finish in the Big Ten?
There are capable perimeter shooters on this team, but nobody appeared comfortable taking a critical outside shot down the stretch. In fact, the only player who was aggressive on the offensive end in overtime in East Lansing, Mich., was freshman Marc Loving, and he was probably a bit too aggressive given the situation.
This team can still accomplish a great deal this year even without a classic “go-to scorer” like it had last season with Deshaun Thomas, but somebody has to make the critical plays down the stretch.
Another thing hampering the offensive efficiency was the turnovers. The Buckeyes coughed it up 17 times against Iowa and an astounding 21 times against Michigan State. This team isn’t good enough offensively to overcome too many turnovers if it hopes to beat the best squads the Big Ten has to offer.
Even Ohio State’s overwhelming strength of team defense was unable to shine against Iowa because the Hawkeyes consistently beat the Buckeyes down the floor in transition, even after made baskets. When Ohio State gets its defense set, it is the best team in the country on that end of the floor, but it simply couldn’t do that consistently enough in the loss.
Frankly, getting beat so often in transition is inexcusable for a team with so many athletes across the board. It would certainly be surprising if Matta or Craft allows this to happen again this season.
While there is reason to be concerned following the two losses, the sky isn’t falling. Yes, trips to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, along with home dates against Michigan State and Michigan, pose as serious pitfalls if the issues aren’t corrected, but Matta has a track record of ensuring that his teams play their best basketball as the season progresses.
In fact, squads that won Big Ten titles and featured stars such as Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger had midseason swoons that were worse than this two-game blip on the radar screen.
This year’s Buckeyes have their work cut out for them, but don’t jump off the bandwagon just yet. It’s a fairly safe bet they will find a way to finish strong with Matta at the helm.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.