Over the first two months of the 2013-14 season, Ohio State spent six weeks ranked in the Top 5. The Buckeyes, as they've done throughout Aaron Craft's career, were overwhelming opponents with their defense and scoring enough to get by.
And they were the biggest tease in college basketball.
It's easy to say that now after four straight losses, the latest of which came at Nebraska on Monday night. But even Ohio State's 15-0 start suggested it was best to take a wait-and-see approach because of the competition.
The Buckeyes did not have one win over a team ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy's or Jeff Sagarin's ratings—they're now 0-3 against both sets—and their best win according to the RPI was a home win over No. 49 North Dakota State.
Now, they've lost four straight games for the first time since 2008—an NIT year—and as evidenced by losing at Nebraska, a team the Buckeyes beat by 31 two weeks earlier, there are more issues in Columbus than simply the schedule getting tougher.
Who is going to score?
A year ago, Ohio State's offensive philosophy was pretty simple: Find a way to get Deshaun Thomas a shot.
Thomas took nearly a third of the team's shot attempts when he was on the floor, and he did so effectively for such a high-volume shooter. He shot 50 percent inside the arc, per Sports-Reference, and 34.4 percent beyond—not great, but good enough for defenses to respect him.
Coming into this season, it appeared that the solution to a Thomas-less offense was either try to get it done by committee or lean on LaQuinton Ross to be that guy.
Ross has been inconsistent—he had one stretch of three games in the nonconference schedule when he scored seven total points—and it has not been quite as easy to set him up as it was Thomas.
Thomas could score from anywhere (beyond the arc, in the mid-range or at the rim), while Ross has struggled in that in-between area. He's making only 28.6 percent of his two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com, an area where Thomas shot 38.9 percent last season.
The big problem for the Buckeyes is that since Ross is unable to handle a Thomas-like load, they're a fairly easy team to defend if you can control penetration.
Craft has realized this, and he's trying almost too hard to get the Buckeyes back on track by himself with reckless drives into the paint.
During the four-game losing streak, he has 19 turnovers, and he is routinely over-penetrating into two or three defenders. Realizing this is what he's going to do, defenses have been able to sag off Craft, who has shot 8-of-28 from three this season.
“Are we pressing a little bit too much? Possibly,” Craft said after the Nebraska loss, according to Bob Baptist of The Columbus Dispatch. “But at the same time, we’ve got to be smart. We’re not freshmen and sophomores. We’re old enough that we know what we’ve got to do. It starts with taking care of the ball at the top of the defense.”
Such disrespect for his jumper has made it difficult for Craft to beat his man off the dribble. And when he tries, the result has often been a difficult shot in traffic, a bad pass or a charge.
It's tough to blame the guy for trying, because his teammates' decision-making hasn't been much better. The Buckeyes turned the ball over on 22.8 percent of their possessions over the last four games. Last year's team wasn't the best-shooting bunch, but it took care of the ball, ranking 10th nationally in turnover percentage, per kenpom.com (subscription required).
"I'll take aggressive errors, but there’s got to be some type of logic behind them," Ohio State coach Thad Matta told The Columbus Dispatch.
Until the Buckeyes cut down the turnovers and start making outside shots, their only shot at turning this thing around is what got them off to a 15-0 start: dominant defense.
Oh yeah, remember when the Buckeyes were dominant defensively?
Ohio State could return to its suffocating defense eventually. Coach Thad Matta still has the peskiest backcourt in the country in Craft and Shannon Scott.
But the Buckeyes of the past—and that includes the first two months of the season—had Craft and Scott gambling with the assurance that their teammates had their back and wouldn't give up easy buckets.
During the losing streak, Craft and Scott have still been active—they've combined for 16 steals—but the defense behind them has not been as good. Big Ten opponents are making 50.8 percent of their twos, an area where Matta's last two teams have been stellar during conference play.
|Ohio State's two-point defense in conference play|
|2-point FG% defense||Big Ten rank|
The way to beat any pressure is to attack it, and Ohio State's opponents are finally figuring out the solution to the riddle: ball-screen the heck out of the Buckeye guards.
On Monday night, Nebraska scored 26 points off pick-and-rolls, and the game plan early on was to use whomever Amir Williams was guarding to set the ball screens.
Williams is not a good defender in space, and the Cornhuskers victimized the big man for eight points in pick-and-roll situations before Matta opted to sit him for almost the entire second half. Williams played only three minutes after halftime.
Williams doesn't give the Buckeyes much offensively, so if he's not a rim protector, he brings little value. And without Williams on the floor, Matta was forced to go to a small lineup that included Ross, a wing, in the middle.
Whether Williams is in or the Buckeyes are going small, they've been ineffective defending the rim, especially in the last three games. Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska combined to shoot 49 of 62 at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com's data.
Matta is a great defensive coach. He'll make adjustments, which may have to include reeling in his guards and packing the paint, because the Buckeyes don't have many options in the post behind Williams.
What are realistic expectations the rest of the way?
The good news for the Buckeyes is that the schedule should help them get back on track. Of course, the same could have been said before they headed to Lincoln.
The next two games are at home against Illinois and Penn State, neither of which is in the top tier of the Big Ten.
Out of the final 12 conference games, Ohio State plays seven at home and has only four games against the four teams that have emerged as the clear-cut tournament teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan).
What the Buckeyes were able to do in the nonconference schedule is feast on the weak. A few tweaks and they could get back to doing just that.
Matta has an impressive streak of four straight years with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and that streak is likely to come to an end. Even if Ohio State gets back to playing defense at a high level, the personnel is just not there for a consistent offense.
Craft has had a great career. He should be remembered as a Buckeye great. He's made a Sweet 16, a Final Four and an Elite Eight.
It's hard to see the Buckeyes missing the tournament altogether in his senior season. But it's just as hard to envision them making it past the first weekend.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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