Aaron Craft struggles to get a leg up against Nebraska.
Wasn't it just two weeks ago that Ohio State was undefeated, among the top five teams in college basketball and boasting a backcourt that was impossible to score against?
Fast forward to today, and the Buckeyes are on the ropes. The fanbase has gone to Code Red—or perhaps Code Scarlet in this case. The rest of the Big Ten is prepared to pounce.
And that backcourt? The veteran trio of junior Shannon Scott and seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. has skidded through OSU's four-game losing streak as if the various courts they've lost on were coated with Crisco.
Where did the issues arise? Why is this Ohio State team in the throes of the school's first four-game losing streak since March of 2008?
Not all of it is on the backcourt, but enough to make one wonder if the Buckeyes were overrated before Big Ten play arrived.
Craft drew All-American praise at the beginning of the season. Smith was expected to pick up his scoring, and he has been efficient if not prolific. Scott was to provide the Robin to Craft's Batman, striking fear into the hearts of opposing guards everywhere.
During this four-game losing streak, nothing has gone to plan on either end. Examine the per-game averages of the Buckeyes guards over the last four games compared to what they gave up to the trios they've opposed.
Which is more alarming: four opponents combining for 140 points in the paint or four backcourts posting a cumulative .573 field-goal percentage? Your answer says a lot about who you blame for the losing streak.
Even defensively, the fearsome Craft/Scott duo has struggled to make its intended impact. Despite forcing Nebraska's Terran Petteway into eight turnovers, OSU still couldn't keep him from getting his buckets. Petteway drained six of his nine shots en route to 18 points.
Lengthy scoring droughts plagued OSU in three of the four games. The Buckeyes scored two points in 8:49 against Michigan State. Separate second-half spans of one point in 4:50 and three points in 4:42 sealed their fate against Minnesota. Finally, three points in 4:06 doomed OSU down the stretch at Nebraska.
By now, we know what Craft and Scott are—and more importantly, aren't—offensively. Neither is a reliable shooter from distance, but both can be menaces if they choose to attack the rim. Smith has shown signs that he can create mid-range and pull-up opportunities for himself, and he's a good foul shooter. However, he negates those strengths by taking the majority of his shots from outside the arc.
Most disappointing during losing streak?
Even more disturbing is that Craft and Scott are struggling with what should be their strengths—ball-handling and defense. The two have combined for 32 fouls and 31 turnovers during the streak. The latter figure is odd, considering that none of the Buckeyes' four conquerors rank in Ken Pomeroy's top 100 in defensive turnover percentage (subscription required).
Now for the good news: OSU is the only Big Ten school in the top 100 of that particular category. So, the potential exists for the Buckeyes to turn results around if they can get to the bottom of the issues currently plaguing their ball-handlers.
Speaking of Turnarounds...
Last season, Ohio State hit a rough patch in February, dropping three of four games, including a 22-point stomping by Wisconsin. It rebounded with an 11-game winning streak that only ended when it ran into a pumped-up Wichita State club in the Elite Eight.
As has been frequently discussed, however, last season's club had a dominant go-to scorer in forward Deshaun Thomas. This season's biggest gun, forward LaQuinton Ross, has struggled with his consistency and hasn't seen a lot of support from his guards.
It sounds ludicrous to mention the possibility of a national title for a team on a four-game losing streak, but consider where we were just one year ago this week.
Louisville was skidding from 4-0 in Big East play to 4-3, a string of defeats that had writers like Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg wondering if it was time to start drafting the eulogies. Eisenberg detailed all the ways that offense was the problem during that streak:
"They shot 40.9 percent from the floor against Syracuse and got nobody in double figures besides (Russ) Smith. They shot 39.7 percent against Villanova, dragged down by Smith's anemic 2 of 13 shooting. And they saved their worst for last against Georgetown, sinking just 34.8 percent of their shots."
Sound familiar? Ohio State has only shot 39 percent during its losing streak.
What about where Connecticut stood in March of 2011? Stumbling into the Big East tournament at 9-9 in the league, seeded ninth and forced to play five games in five days if it wanted to secure any kind of decent NCAA tournament seed. The Huskies came, saw and conquered 11 straight times en route to a national title on the back of now-iconic guard Kemba Walker.
Of course, these are extreme examples. There is no Russ Smith or Kemba Walker on this roster that we know of. But is this backcourt at all championship caliber?
Here's a brief comparison of the Buckeyes' trio with the top three guards on each of the last eight national champions:
(For an explanation of Win Shares, click here.)
Effective field-goal percentage tells us how efficient each team's backcourt was with its collective shot selection. Win Shares per 40 minutes take into account a player's effectiveness on both ends of the court.
Guard play is considered a vital facet of winning in the NCAA tournament, and most of these groups do nothing to refute that. Kentucky's and Florida's guards contributed less than most, but they were also balanced with multiple NBA lottery picks in their frontcourts. UConn, of course, had Kemba. There's no Joakim Noah or Anthony Davis in Columbus right now.
For the entire season so far, the Craft-Scott-Smith triumvirate is actually more or as effective as any of the last four championship guard trios. The problem is that OSU's not likely to play a North Florida or Louisiana-Monroe in the NCAA tournament.
Whatever's going on, even the Buckeyes' veterans admit that it's getting in their heads. Craft said as much to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Ari Wasserman:
“I think we’re not playing with very much confidence right now. That shows when we get into games and we miss a shot or two and then you don’t want to shoot the next one or you look at one guy and say, ‘alright, he’s going to shoot the next (one).’ That’s definitely not when we’re at our best.”
That's an ominous pronouncement coming from the rosy-cheeked face of the program. With a deeply flawed backcourt and a group of forwards who may project as NBA second-round picks, this looked like a solid team, but not top-five good.
If Craft, Scott and Smith can't channel their collective 11 years of college experience and reverse their personal downward spirals, the Buckeyes may only turn out to be NIT good.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.