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Ohio State’s win over UCLA raises more questions than it answers

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The Buckeyes are 11-1, but recent struggles could cause issues in Big Ten play.

CBS Sports Classic Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

In college basketball, the winner is often decided in the margins. Talent gaps can be erased by complicated schemes; games can be won and lost with halftime adjustments, by one or two good play calls, or by the exploitation of weakness. Basketball has the potential to be an immensely advanced strategic game.

Sometimes though, the answer to winning a basketball game is simple. You find room on the court where no one can put their hands in your face, and you throw the ball into the hoop. Against UCLA’s hideous, porous defense, Ohio State was getting half of that done, finding wide open shots all game long with good ball movement and the exploitation of one of the least disciplined defenses in college basketball.

Unfortunately, for much of Ohio State’s 80-66 victory over the Bruins, the Buckeyes looked groggy and cold for large swaths of the game. Point guard C.J. Jackson spent the first 30 minutes of the game looking completely incapable of scoring before he finally broke through in the final 10, finishing with 22 points after scoring just four in the first 30. Duane Washington Jr. missed what felt like 30 open threes (in reality it was just four) on his way to just eight points on 11 shots. Keyshawn Woods had six on 11, missing all four of his threes.

In total, the Buckeyes shot just 34 percent (8-23) from three and 41 percent (28-67) from the field, which would be much less ghastly had it come against a team that cared at all about playing defense. For example, this Duane Washington three late in the first half in which every UCLA defender does the exact opposite of what they are supposed to is the kind of thing Ohio State saw all afternoon.

While Washington hit that one, for the most part Ohio State spent the game missing shots very similar to that one. UCLA gave the Buckeyes good looks, and Ohio State just refused to hit them. They were able to pull away, because, well, UCLA is an awful basketball team, but having such a poor shooting day against such a poor defense is super concerning.

Even more concerning is that this wasn’t a one-time thing. This was the third-straight poor shooting game against a poor defense for the Buckeyes. Ohio State struggled to score on Bucknell (184th in KenPom AdjD), Youngstown State (317th in KenPom AdjD) and now UCLA (72nd in KenPom AdjD). We knew that this team would have trouble scoring at times without a true star on offense, but in the three games following a ten day break from Dec. 5-Dec. 15, Ohio State’s offense has seemingly fallen off of a cliff.

Luckily, it hasn’t truly come back to hurt the Buckeyes. They’ve won all three, though a two-point win over Bucknell, a battle with Youngstown State until about the 10 minute mark in the second half, and a slog against UCLA certainly don’t inspire confidence. Ohio State has one more non-conference game, next Saturday, against High Point.

That should be yet another win, but if the shooting continues to struggle, there should be very real concern for the impending battle with Michigan State to open 2019. The Spartans are 28th in KenPom AdjD, and pretty easily the most potent offense Ohio State will have faced yet.

If Michigan State comes out in a zone, which UCLA did today, and forces Ohio State to shoot, it could be a very, very long day in Value City Arena on Jan. 5.

This isn’t to say that everything is lost for the Buckeyes, obviously. The season is still extremely young, and we’ve seen this Buckeye team play significantly better this season than they are right now. We’ve seen C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods, Luther Muhammad and Washington shoot much better than they are right now. We know they’re capable of it.

However, Kaleb Wesson can’t carry Ohio State through conference play. Those guards need to step up and get out of this shooting slump before the Big Ten tears the young Buckeyes apart.

Ultimately, all of this may be nothing more than a bit of a cold stretch, or as assistant coach Ryan Pedon described it in a post game interview with Paul Keels and Ronnie Stokes, an “energy cycle.”

“I think team’s go through cycles of energy throughout the year, and I think we’re in a little bit of an energy cycle. We’re hopefully ending this energy cycle, where now we can go home for a few days and rest up. College basketball season for student athletes is a grind. All teams go through periods throughout the year, where they’re not gonna have the juice for 40 minutes that you would love them to. Certainly we felt that was part of our issue in the Youngstown State game, our energy level wasn’t where it needed to be, it affected a lot of different things. We fought through it today, we’re excited, now we get a couple days off and it’s another opportunity to learn from a win and hopefully get better and get ready for a tough High Point team after Christmas.”

Whether it is just a slump due to some tiredness from the team, or a bigger problem with the makeup of this group is still yet to be answered. What we do know is that this team does have talent. They do have potential, and if their contributors can step up, they can win some big games in the next few months. To this point, Chris Holtmann has given us no reason to think that he can’t get that done.