For the first time in the Chris Holtmann era at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are under-performing, failing to adjust their strategy, and on a losing streak longer than two games. After dropping a top 25 battle to Michigan State last Saturday, and back to back road games to Rutgers and Iowa, the Buckeyes are feeling the January cold, and look completely lost with a number of massive games ahead of them.
The shooting has gone ice cold since the turn of the the calendar into 2019, with the Buckeyes shooting 43 percent (28 percent from three) against Michigan State, 39 percent against Rutgers (30 percent from three) and now 37 percent (40 percent from three) against Iowa. A lot of that comes from the fact that Ohio State’s primary guards (CJ Jackson, Duane Washington, Keyshawn Woods and Luther Muhammad) have all struggled greatly from the outside for the better part of the season to this point.
With no real outside threat, opponents are going almost exclusively with a 2-3 zone against the Buckeyes, and unless Kaleb Wesson is able to contribute 25 points a game (he isn’t), the Buckeyes have no real scoring answer for it. None of the guards have the quickness to get to the hoop against the zone, and outside of those four and the Wesson brothers, no one on the team is anywhere near being a consistent scoring threat.
That brings us to the second issue dogging the Buckeyes: their closest player resembling a star, Kaleb Wesson, can’t stay on the floor. In back to back games, Wesson has picked up two fouls within the first three minutes of play, keeping him sidelined for most of the first half. He fouled out against Michigan State (though he finished with 25 points), finished with four fouls and played just 26 minutes against Rutgers, and scored just once in 23 minutes against Iowa. He’s unable to play aggressively without fouling, and with him either hampered by fouls or off the floor entirely, Ohio State has little to no competence against the zone.
That brings me to the third, and most pressing problem: Ohio State can’t pass the ball because they have a core misunderstanding of how to deal with a zone. After not turning over the ball once in the first half against Michigan State, the Buckeyes have lost the ball 38 times in the last five halves, including a season high 21 times against Iowa.
Be it errant passes, like Andre Wesson’s late game blunder against Rutgers, ill-advised tosses directly into a zone, or over-dribbling, Ohio State is playing as loose with the ball as they ever have under Holtmann. They may be able to withstand that if more than one player on the team had any semblance of offensive consistency, but there’s no such luck. This is the hand Chris Holtmann was dealt, and while the elite talent isn’t there, we’ve seen him work magic before to know this isn’t the best product Ohio State could be putting out on the floor this year.
So how does Chris Holtmann adjust to the zone, clean up his young team’s mistakes, and get Ohio State headed back in the right direction before the season is lost? Well, a good first step may be to lean into Ohio State’s lack of size. We’ve seen variations of a small ball lineup work for the Buckeyes at several points this season, and some combination of three guards, one wing, and either Kaleb Wesson or Kyle Young may help speed up the excessively slow Buckeye offense.
Just changing the lineup, as we’ve seen, isn’t going to fix problems though. On top of a dedicated small ball group, Ohio State needs to consider adding press defense to their repertoire. With four quick, capable defender options at guard, and solid athletes in Musa Jallow, Andre Wesson and Jaedon LeDee, Ohio State has the speed and depth to force opponents to beat a press for most, if not all of a game.
The Buckeyes are struggling to defend without fouling and struggling to score. If they stop focusing so much on half-court offense and defense and just look to create turnovers and run in transition, they can both neutralize the zone defense and keep their own bigs from constant post defense. It’s a radical change from Chris Holtmann’s usual system, but his usual system isn’t working for this group of players right now, especially when the rest of the Big Ten is hyper-aware of Ohio State’s shooting deficiencies.
The shooting isn’t going to get fixed, at least not enough to turn the season around. Kaleb Wesson isn’t suddenly going to learn how to defend without fouling. The young Buckeyes aren’t going to suddenly realize that you can’t throw long passes against a zone. If the Buckeyes can’t win the situations they’re being put in by opposing teams and by their own limitations, they need to change the game. They need to flip the board and create chaos rather than trying to turn an undisciplined team without an elite scoring threat into the veteran Buckeyes led by Keita Bates-Diop that we saw in 2018.
This is a rebuilding year, sure. We knew that coming in, and the early season success may have skewed the fact that this is still a mostly young, mostly not-quite-ready roster full of guys that are going to be good at some point. But that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes have to lay down and die at the hand of a 2-3 zone. Ohio State has some talent, it has plenty of athleticism and it has energy. Chris Holtmann needs to play into those strengths before the season spirals out of control.