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Column: Are issues plaguing Ohio State’s men’s basketball team even fixable at this point?

The Buckeyes had four months to address holes in their game. At this point, what you see is what you get.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As the final seconds ticked off the clock Thursday night during Ohio State’s 71-68 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament’s opening round, Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann stood at the scorer’s table, furiously jotting down notes on a slip of paper that he brings with him to post-game press conferences. His team had a halftime lead against an inferior opponent, but an absolute breakdown on defense allowed Penn State to roar back to life like a lion and swipe the victory away from the broken Buckeyes. Just like how it happened against Michigan last week at home — on Senior Day, against their rivals.

This is the bleakest Ohio State’s basketball program has felt since Holtmann took over in 2017. The Buckeyes carried a lengthy losing streak into the 2021 Big Ten Tournament as well, but ripped off four-straight wins in as many days and nearly won the entire thing. This season, that didn’t happen. Instead, the opposite took place — they got bucked from the horse on the very first evening.

These recent losses have mostly followed the same script — not to a tee, but you can see similarities. Against Maryland and Nebraska, the Buckeyes trailed at halftime and never caught up. Their defense was so porous it wouldn't allow for the offense to cut into any deficit. A six-point hole felt like 16. A dozen or more felt untouchable. In those games, the Buckeyes were never in control.

Against Michigan and more recently against Penn State, Ohio State had a lead at the break. It was seven against the Wolverines, and nine against the ‘Nits. In both cases, Ohio State’s aggressive, connected defense that they played in the first half dissolved by the second half, giving way to a big run and eventually a loss. And once they fall behind by a few points, they simply cannot get enough defensive stops to keep up. On Thursday night, Penn State shot 61% in the second half, scoring on 22 of their 30 offensive possessions.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Ohio State vs Penn State Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Is there a disconnect at halftime? Are the Buckeyes letting their guard down with a slight halftime lead? Teams make adjustments against Ohio State, but the Buckeyes in turn are not adjusting back. Or maybe the adjustments just aren’t working. Ohio State is not building 20-point leads on teams and epically collapsing, but right now it feels inevitable that when it gets to crunch time, the Buckeyes’ defense will let them down.

That’s not where you want to be in mid-March.

The Buckeyes have next four days off, and then will tango with the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday afternoon (12:15 pm E.T.). Loyola Chicago (25-7, 13-5) is a top-40 offense in the nation and a top-25 defense. They earned their bid to the big dance by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, holding all three of their opponents under 60 points in the process. They held regular season-champ Northern Iowa to 43 points and under 30% shooting in the championship game to top it all off. Their star guard, Lucas Williamson, was the MVC defensive player of the year. This Rambler team guards well, and is peaking at exactly the right time.

Ohio State, on the other hand.... not so much.

The Buckeyes have some very real, debilitating problems that may not be fixable at this point in the season. Problems that, historically, mean this team will not be making any type of extended run in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Some of these things are completely out of their control, but other issues have presented themselves throughout the season, and simply have not been addressed.

First of all, the Buckeyes are beat up. And with all due respect, the “Every team has injuries!” crowd can put a sock in it. There is being a little bruised, and there’s missing five key players, two of whom have missed a combined 58 games. Here’s the current injury report:

  • Kyle Young (concussion) has missed the last three games, and is questionable for Friday’s NCAA Tournament game.
  • Zed Key (ankle) has played a total of seven minutes over the past four games while recovering from an ankle injury sustained Feb. 27 at Maryland. He is questionable for Friday's NCAA Tournament game.
  • Meechie Johnson (ankle) has not played since spraining his ankle against Michigan on March 6. It sounds like he was a healthy DNP against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Justice Sueing (abdominal/groin) will miss his 29th-consecutive game Friday when Ohio State takes on Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA Tournament. It is unlikely that he will play this season.
  • Seth Towns (back) missed the entire season following off-season back surgery
NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The two injuries that are killers for Ohio State are Young and Key. Key is their starting center, and Young often plays a hybrid four/five role off the bench. Key provides another big body and a high-percentage shooter in the paint. Young comes in behind Key typically, but with both of them out, Joey Brunk has been forced into playing 25-30 minutes per game —something he rarely has had to do in his collegiate career. Ohio State has no depth down low, and nobody beyond Brunk to lean on.

Sueing is not a new injury, but his ability to score and grab rebounds was never replaced by the current roster. Sueing averaged nearly six rebounds per game last season, and Ohio State desperately needs that right now. They also need a reliable third scorer so that E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham do not have to play 40 minutes each night. Unfortunately, Sueing will not be available this season (it appears).

At some point, we have to acknowledge that Chris Holtmann has no more cards left to play. When you’re already asking 48-year-old Joey Brunk to play 31 minutes per game, and your bench is so unproductive that your two star players are forced to play 38 minutes per game, there are no more rabbits that the head coach can pull out of his hat. Holtmann needs all of his players at his disposal, but heading into the NCAA Tournament, he’s down about 13 of his roster.

But now let’s get into the stuff that was fixable!

First and foremost, this team stinks on defense. They reek like chicken you tossed in the trash two nights ago and forgot you left in there. Their defense is downright rancid. Ohio State is No. 131 in defensive efficiency this season according to KenPom. Only 12 teams in the tournament field are worse: Davidson, Miami, Norfolk State, Akron, Jacksonville State, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Longwood, Colgate, Delaware, Bryant, South Dakota State and Wright State. Every single one of those teams are a 10-seed or worse in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State is a 7.

The Buckeyes allowed Penn State — the 13th-most efficient offense in the Big Ten — to score on 22 of their 30 possessions Thursday night, and on 12 of their final 14. This helped them erase a nine-point deficit and defeat the Buckeyes in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Nittany Lions shot an astounding 60.1% from the floor in the second half, a mark you’d expect from only the most elite of all the elite offenses. Nope, it was just Penn State.

Ohio State’s losses to Maryland, Nebraska, and Michigan had a very similar feel to them. When the Buckeyes have their backs against the wall and are in need of a stop, they simply can’t do it. Each time they cut Maryland’s lead down to three or four points, the Terrapins went down and scored at the other end. When Ohio State rallied to cut Michigan’s lead from 13 to four in the closing minutes of their senior day tilt, they let Moussa Diabate get free for a wide open dunk to seal the deal. Same with Nebraska, and of course, Penn State.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

There are simply too many defensive liabilities on the current roster to ever trot out a starting five that cannot be targeted in some way, shape, or form. Jimmy Sotos is a weak, susceptible defender, as is Cedric Russell. Eugene Brown was fantastic early in the season, but recently has been getting burnt guarding the ball more often than not. Joey Brunk has given Ohio State some quality minutes offensively, but defensively he’s slow-footed and isn’t disciplined on shot fakes and pivots (the same moves he utilizes on the other end, oddly enough). Jamari Wheeler has been a shadow of his Penn State self. He has been acceptable, but not elite — not what Ohio State thought they were getting. Justin Ahrens is picked on whenever he is on the floor. Branham is improving, but his slight frame makes him easier to blow by when guarding a bigger guard or wing. Need I go on?

Chris Holtmann has repeated over and over, “We need to be more connected on defense.” and, “We are not operating as well as we could be defensively.” The problem is, it’s mid-March. This team is not suddenly going to learn how to not let guards blow by them, or communicate well on switches. Their ball-screen defense is not going to drastically improve by Friday. At this point, it is what it is.

The Buckeyes will have to win in spite of all this, because one week of practice will not prompt a 180 in that department. Chris Holtmann said it best after Ohio State’s loss to Nebraska on Mar. 1:

And the second major issue... defensive rebounding.

The Buckeyes are 10th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, averaging 25.5 per game. They are 12th overall in rebounds in the Big Ten with 34.4 per game. Several times this season — but especially down the stretch — teams broke Ohio State by corralling so many of their own misses. Even when Ohio State played solid defense and got a stop, the opposing team would shoot a long three, and it would clang back to them. Or they would miss a layup, but a Buckeye didn’t box out and their opponent was able to tip the miss back in.

Allowing a ton of offensive rebounds doesn’t just tire you out on defense, it keeps the ball out of your hands on offense. To use a football term, it allows your opponent to control the time of possession. It’s very difficult to build a lead — or cut into a deficit — when the ball is never in your hands.

Here are some offensive rebounding performances by Ohio State’s opponents this season:

  • Michigan - 13
  • Maryland - 11
  • Illinois - 12
  • Iowa - 20
  • Purdue - 15
  • Northwestern - 16

Similarly to the defense, this isn’t something that can suddenly be fixed. For starters, Justice Sueing and his 5.5 rebounds per game are not coming back this season. Young and Key are questionable to play this week. On top of missing some of their biggest guys, this team just isn’t good at controlling the glass. Is it coaching? Perhaps. Is it the size of the guys they have healthy? Sure! But I don’t see this as an issue that one week off can suddenly fix.

They only allowed Penn State to grab six offensive rebounds in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s a very good showing, and they’ll have to continue that trend if they want to make any sort of run in the NCAA Tournament.

The thing that frustrates so many Ohio State fans about this team in particular is that the same issues keep popping up, and when the team is asked about it, they hear the same old song and dance. At this point, the Buckeyes will have to win — and defy historical trends — in spite of their downfalls. Ohio State’s major ailments are personnel-based and fundamental in nature, which will not be fixed by Friday afternoon.