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January 20, 2014

Unchartered territory

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-Sometime after their loss to Minnesota Thursday night, members of the Ohio State men's basketball team tried to figure out the last time they had been defeated in three consecutive games.

This was the first time it had happened to this group of players at Ohio State, following losses to Michigan State, Iowa, and the Golden Gophers. But it surely happened to at least one Buckeye in high school or AAU, right?

"You go down the line of the guys on this team and I don't think any of us had ever lost three games in a row at any level," senior guard Aaron Craft said. "It's different. It's unchartered territory for everyone."

So here Ohio State sits, reeling off three straight defeats after beginning the season with 15 consecutive wins. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 3 in the country less than two weeks ago, and are now ranked much closer to the bottom of the top 25 than the top.

Most of the blame for the recent skid has been attributed to a lack of offense.

"We just have to make shots," coach Thad Matta said. Ohio State is clearly lacking a go-to scorer, something it had last season in former all-American Deshaun Thomas. Junior forward LaQuinton Ross has tried to fill that role, and he's scored 20-plus points in three out of the last five games. But Ross' game isn't as complete as Thomas' was, and it shows late in games when the junior forward often disappears because of an inability to handle the ball securely. Ross had two critical turnovers late in the game against Iowa.

But the offensive faults aren't all due to a lack of a go-to scorer. Ohio State's backcourt has played as poorly as it has in recent memory during this three-game losing streak. Craft has turned the ball over 15 times, junior guard Shannon Scott has scored just 12 points, and senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. has shot nine-of-27 from the field.

In each of the past three games, Ohio State has gone against a zone defense. Iowa and Minnesota played zone much more than Michigan State did, and during each occasion, the zone was a 2-3. The Buckeyes struggled to execute effectively against the zone defenses.

Ohio State's been working on ways to perform better against zone defenses.

"I just try my best to find other ways to score, whether it's off a duck in, or the open spot in the middle spot in the zone," junior center Amir Williams said. "And just trying to score off the offensive glass, because teams that play a lot of zone aren't as effective rebounding as they are when they play man-to-man."

What about Ohio State's defense, though? During the first 15 games of the season, Ohio State's defense ranked No. 1 in efficiency according to kenpom.com. Now, Ohio State ranks No. 2, so it seems the Buckeyes defense hasn't slipped very much.

The defense hasn't been as good as Ohio State has wanted it to be, though. During the first 15 games of the season, no team scored more than 69 points against the Buckeyes. During the past three games, opponents are averaging 73 points. Part of that can be attributed to Ohio State facing better opponents. And part of it can be attributed to the Buckeyes not executing on defense like it did the first two months of the season.

"We talked about it in the locker room the other day, that we're not where we were defensively at the beginning of the year," Williams said. "We just have to get back to our basic principles of hedging ball screens, being in the right position, and like Craft said, holding guys accountable for their position on the court. Because a lot of times, we've found ourselves not where we needed to be on the defensive end."

In the past, Ohio State's defense has led to its offense. The Buckeyes, with Craft, Scott, and Smith Jr. on the perimeter, are as good as anyone at forcing opponents into bad situations that lead to turnovers that lead to easy buckets for Ohio State. The past three games, Ohio State's been on the other end of that. Turnovers on offense have led to easy baskets for opponents, which can skew the statistics of a defense.

So it seems like it all comes down to offensive execution for this Ohio State men's basketball team. The Buckeyes have shown to have the capability to perform well on offense. And despite finding themselves in a position they haven't been in before, Ohio State's players remain confident.

"There have been teams that lost three in a row and went on to do great things," Craft said.

Most notably, last year's national champion, Louisville, lost three games in a row in January last season.

Ohio State doesn't want to lose four games in a row, though, and the Buckeyes will attempt to halt the streak at three Monday night at Nebraska.



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