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ANN ARBOR, Mich. - In a dry spell that could end a once promising season prematurely, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta took a trip back to November. As one may recall, Ohio State knocked off two Top 10 teams in a 14-day stretch, the later being a 22-point humiliation of then-No. 3 Duke.
On that night - Nov. 29 - the Buckeyes looked like a team poised to trample all on-coming competition. It must seem like a lifetime ago for Ohio State. Matta and the Buckeyes, a group that has thrived in February and March, has now lost two of their past three games while locked in a Big Ten title race. The most obvious reason for the lack of production: poor shooting.
"Coach Matta actually turns on the tape of the Duke game and asks, 'Where did that team go?' " sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said in a Crisler Center corridor following Michigan's 56-51 victory on Saturday.
Good question. It's a mystery to many.
Ohio State shot over 59 percent from the field and made 57 percent of its three-point attempts against the Blue Devils. The shooting percentage was the Buckeyes second-highest of the season while its three-point accuracy topped all 27 games.
Eighty-five points were scored by OSU on that late November night. It has reached that number once in the past six games, a stretch the Buckeyes have averaged just 64.3 points per game. The Buckeyes had two of their worst offensive performance of the season in those six games. Last Saturday against Michigan State, OSU mustered up a season-low 48 points on 26.4 percent shooting, another low. It barely beat those numbers at Michigan - 51 and 38.8.
Though a tumultuous week, the Buckeyes are still just a game behind first-place Michigan State and tied with Michigan.
"I can't even think about the conference race right now," Sullinger said. "We just have to get back to Columbus and get back to work. We have a lot to fix, and I wouldn't be surprised if we spent the entire practice tomorrow working on shooting."
In a season where it has made less than one-third of its three-point attempts, Ohio State is not shy to hoist them up. Saturday night in Ann Arbor was no exception. In the first half of a game they never led, the Buckeyes rarely went to its brute inside. Sullinger scored four points on six shots in the half, while Ohio State missed all nine of its three-point attempts. In one five-shot stretch - all missed - OSU shot four threes without Sullinger ever getting a look.
"I thought the looks (we got), especially in the first half, were really good looks," Matta said.
"We knew where we wanted the ball to go. But by the same token, you're hoping at some point the dam breaks and you're able to get something going."
There were also three turnovers, two of which were offensive fouls. Matta was less than amused by officiating crew Tom Eades, Mike Kitts and Ted Valentine, saying in his postgame press conference that the Buckeyes must have "set an NCAA record" with five charges called against them.
"There were a couple charge calls and then after that we got really nervous and we kind of got timid and started falling in love with the three," Sullinger said.
In the second half Ohio State went to its bread and butter and found better results. Sullinger scored 10 of his 14 points after the half, as the Buckeyes pulled to within three and fall behind by as much as 10.
Asked if he wants Sullinger to touch the ball on every possession, Matta answered emphatically, "No question about it."
"But with the first charge he had, he was a little timid. They weren't allowing him to get to the paint, so his post-ups were out there. He only shot two free throws tonight. Second half, I thought we were pretty effective getting the ball down to him. We want to go to him anytime we possibly can. But a lot of times, you need to make some shots to open some other things up. And that was what we probably weren't able to do tonight to open the floor up a little bit."
Thomas was the lone Buckeye who shot better than 50 percent from the field. He made 6 of 13 shots from the field, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc to tally OSU's only three-pointers. Thomas finished with 25 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Still, the sharp-shooting sophomore is aware improvements have to be made.
"I am worried as a team," Thomas said. "We can't afford to lose right now at this stage in February. We want to win. We want to make history. That's what we're trying to do. We can't do that unless we make shots."
The absence of contributing offense may have had a hand in Sullinger's rough night, but credit Michigan head coach John Beilein with always throwing new surprises at the All-American center. Beilein is a master defensive strategist, making it no coincidence that Sullinger has struggled in four career games against the maize and blue. He's averaged 14.5 points and almost nine rebounds, well below his overall career averages.
"We did not double all the time on Sullinger," Beilein said. "We varied our action with him, and that had a lot to do with confidence in what Jordan (Morgan) could do if he was out of foul trouble.
"When we did double to start the second half, we doubled right away. Thomas hit a three. Thomas hasn't been a high percentage guy. We were a little bit more concerned with (William) Buford. But their numbers have come down from where they were before, and it's typical when you get into the Big Ten. I hate giving up the three, and I love scoring the three. I didn't want to give up those threes. But that's why we varied our coverages - because Sullinger is such a good passer."
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they don't have weapons all the way around the court like a season ago. When Sullinger doesn't get in a rhythm offensively, it spells doom more often than night. Thomas and Buford aren't prolific enough shooters to be reliable threats night in and night out. Last night was proof of that as Buford, an enigma for four seasons, continued his shoddy play. In his past four games Buford's point totals read: 29, four, 24, six.
But Matta continues to preach his 'keep shooting' mentality. It's been a hallmark of Matta's during his eight seasons in Columbus. He trusts his shooters and believes, eventually, the shots will fall. It's something Buford has listened to for much of his entire, and especially in 2011-12. He has attempted the most shots on the team - 61 more than Thomas - despite having the ninth-best shooting percentage.
It's the self-belief, though, that leads to made baskets, not a high volume of attempts.
"Instead of thinking, 'Oh, I missed the last one,' shoot the next one with confidence," Sullinger said. "We didn't shoot any shots with confidence.
"As soon as we start making shots I think we'll be a pretty good basketball team. We just couldn't make a shot."
But what if they don't come? What was once thought to be an aberration looks to be a scary trend - a February regression.
Said Sullinger: "Honestly, at this point, we really don't know what our future holds if we keep playing like this."
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