COLUMBUS, Ohio-The question has been asked, repeatedly, for the past two weeks. The answer remains the same.
Why has Ohio State gone from a squad ranked No. 3 in the country to a team on the worst losing streak the program has suffered in more than four years?
"I don't know," senior guard Aaron Craft said for the umpteenth time, this specific answer coming after the Buckeyes loss to Nebraska Monday night.
Ohio State has lost four straight games for the first time since 2008. Buckeye coach Thad Matta has had just three streaks of such magnitude over the past 10 years of his career. The streak began on the road at Michigan State, the Buckeyes losing in overtime to the then No. 5-ranked Spartans. Then came the loss at home to Iowa and the defeat on the road to Minnesota. The most recent, and worst, loss of the streak occurred in Lincoln, Neb. Monday. After beating the Huskers by 31 points just more than two weeks ago, Ohio State fell to Nebraska, who was previously winless in the conference.
Midseason struggles aren't anything new for this set of players. Last February, Ohio State lost three of four games. Then the Buckeyes reeled off 11 straight wins, won the Big Ten tournament, and made the Elite Eight.
"How much time do we have?" Matta asked following the most recent loss. "I think this, you have to respect this league and know that it's hard. We had a shot at the rim four games ago (at Michigan State) at the horn to win. We had a nine-point lead in the next game (against Iowa) in the second half and get beat. You come back and take the lead (Monday). We need consistency."
To answer Matta's question, Ohio State has 12 regular season games left, plus at least one contest in the Big Ten tournament. Unless the Buckeyes continue to lose games at a rapid rate, they'll be playing in some type of postseason tournament, either the NCAA or the NIT (the last time Ohio State played in the NIT was 2008; the Buckeyes won it).
So there's plenty of time left. Everything Ohio State wanted to accomplish this season is still there for the taking. What do the Buckeyes want to accomplish? They don't post a list of goals anywhere for the media to see, but if there is a hidden list, it probably focuses on competing for a conference championship (regular season and tournament), making the NCAA Tournament, and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fifth-straight year.
But before any of those things can happen, Ohio State needs to figure out what has gone wrong the past four games, and how they're going to correct it. The Buckeyes started the season with 15 straight wins. Yes, the competition has gotten significantly better, but even so, Ohio State isn't currently doing the things it was in November and December that produced victories.
The majority, if not all, of Ohio State's problems have something to do with offense. Bad shooting, bad ball handling, bad movement, and bad decisions have been prevalent during the losing streak. Over the past four games, Ohio State has:
• Committed 64 turnovers
• Shot 40 percent from the field (80-of-218)
• Missed 29 free throws (58-of-87)
The better competition aspect of this equation certainly comes into play with the turnovers. Ohio State's players are facing tougher defenders. But many of the turnovers the Buckeyes are committing are purely a result of dumb and lazy decisions. Take, for example, this pass by junior forward LaQuinton Ross in the first half of the Iowa contest.
Ross gets the ball on the right wing after a simple pick-and-pop play with Craft. The shot isn't there, so Ross needs to either use his dribble and create for himself, or pass to an open teammate. He chooses to pass the ball across of the key to Craft, who isn't open. The pass is lazy, the ball gets stolen, and Iowa gets an easy lay-up on the other end. Plays like that have been regular for the Buckeyes during this streak. They're avoidable.
Bad shooting is a part of basketball and it's something that's unavoidable. But shooting 40 percent as a team for a four-game span is something that shouldn't happen. Ohio State doesn't have a plethora of great shooters, but Ross, senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., junior forward Sam Thompson, sophomore forward Amedeo Della Valle, and freshman Marc Loving all have average or above average jump shots. The problem with Ohio State's shooting during this losing streak is the shots that the Buckeyes are taking. Most of them are bad shots that come after little ball movement, like this fade-away from Thompson with 15 seconds left on the shot clock.
Ohio State's turnover problems and shooting woes seem to heighten when game's are on the line. And despite losing four straight contests, the Buckeyes have had legitimate chances to win three of those games. With two minutes to go in the Michigan State, Iowa, and Nebraska games, the Buckeyes were within two baskets or fewer of tying the game. But the Buckeyes don't seem to know what the plan is when the pressure mounts. Despite LaQuinton Ross' scoring prowess, he's far from the player Deshaun Thomas was. Ohio State doesn't have a player that can just take the ball and go. Most of the Buckeyes' end of game offense is forced, panicked plays.
Ohio State's players and coaches watch film for hours each day. They can see the mistakes they're making better than anyone.
The important question has never been, What has Ohio State been doing wrong? The question will continue to be, Why has Ohio State been doing the things it has? Once the Buckeyes can answer that, they can fix the issues. And maybe then they can turn the season around.
The first chance to do that comes Thursday at 7 p.m. E.T. against Illinois in Columbus.