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Column: Smacking the panic button on the Ohio State men’s basketball team

After you lose to Minnesota at home, all options should be on the table.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

In college basketball, a “bad loss” is one that a team needed to win, no ifs, ands, or buts. A “bad loss” does not typically refer to the way a team loses, because you can point out a bad loss before it happens. “If team A beats team B tomorrow night, that would be a very bad loss for them.”

When you’re considerably better than another team, your only option is to beat them. Anything less is, you guessed it, a bad loss.

The Ohio State men’s basketball team (10-6, 2-3) suffered a bad loss this past weekend on the road at Maryland. It was only by seven points on the road, but the Terrapins (11-5, 2-3) have tumbled from their early season perch. Kevin Willard’s first Maryland team looks like an NCAA Tournament bubble team, or perhaps an NIT candidate. They’re not horrid, but they are a team this Ohio State team needed to handle on the road.

They did not. Bad loss.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Maryland Brent Skeen-USA TODAY Sports

And then on Thursday night, the Buckeyes welcomed the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-8, 1-4) to Columbus. Minnesota was the easiest remaining game on Ohio State’s schedule — the Gophers' best win was over California Baptist and their worst loss was to Nebraska at home just a few days ago. Minnesota had yet to taste victory in the Big Ten before Thursday, losing to Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska so far. After a 70-67 victory over the Buckeyes last night, they’re officially on the board — and Ohio State is spiraling.

That’s two bad losses.

The short-term repercussions of these two losses are obviously how they impact the Buckeyes’ chances of winning their first Big Ten title in 12 years. At 2-3, they’re now two games behind first-place Purdue with 15 to play. Last season’s conference champion went 15-5. To match that, Ohio State would need to win 13 of their final 15 games, which includes road trips to West Lafayette, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Bloomington, and Piscataway.

But the long-term impacts of losing a game to Minnesota are much more damning. Losing to a team as poor as Minnesota (No. 174 KenPom, No. 245 RPI, No. 241 NET) will single-handedly drop Ohio State a seed line (or two) in the NCAA Tournament. If the Buckeyes go on an incredible run and finish in the top two or three in the Big Ten — which seems unlikely now, but mathematically still very possible — they will still be seeded lower than where you’d typically expect the Big Ten runner-up to be. Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament resume has shackles around its ankles from this point on. There’s no overlooking that egregious loss because that loss is not going to sweeten with time — Minnesota is one of the worst Big Ten teams of the past decade.

But let’s stop talking about NCAA Tournament seeding. At this point, even making the tournament is no longer a given for this defensively-inept Ohio State team.

As has been the case for most of Chris Holtmann’s teams, this year’s squad typically gets it done on offense. They were the most efficient offensive team in the nation on Thursday afternoon, and even after the debacle we saw a few hours later, they’re still the third-most efficient team on offense in the country, averaging 1.18 points per offensive possession.

Defensively... it’s a whole different story. Not only is Ohio State a poor defensive team, but there are also times when it looks like they’re regressing on that end of the floor. What good is being a great offensive team when you’re giving it up at the other end immediately after? What good is being a great offensive team if you can’t stop your opponent from grabbing their own misses and scoring right over the top of you? What is the point of being a great offensive team if you’re incapable of getting two defensive stops in a row, and therefore building any kind of lead?

The puzzle pieces Chris Holtmann and his staff have are the ones they have to fiddle with for the next eight weeks. The way they’re currently configured isn’t leading to the best results, so it may be time to push the puzzle on the ground and start putting it together differently. Namely, the freshmen.

Brice Sensabaugh is going to be a first-round NBA Draftee in a few months, but it’s not due to his defense. While Sensabaugh has been opening eyes with his creativity on the offensive end, Holtmann has been unable to hide him on defense. It’s not like baseball, you can’t stick your worst player in rightfield and hope to hide him out there — when Brice is on the floor, he is a target. We saw it against Maryland over the weekend, and we saw it against Minnesota — when he is on the floor, teams are attacking him. NBA scouts may not care, but that matters in college.

Bruce Thornton is going to go down as one of the great point guards in Ohio State history when all is said and done — I truly believe that. The poise and level-headedness he has shown to this point have been something else. He has not played “like a freshman” this season.... until the last few games. Over the last four games, Thornton is averaging 7.8 points, 2.8 assists, and 1.8 turnovers per game. He’s shooting 30.3% overall during that stretch — which Ohio State has lost three of four — and is playing 28.4 minutes per game. Holtmann talked about it last year with Malaki Branham — the freshman wall. Branham never hit it. Thornton seems to be running into it right now, and he may need a brief reset.

Meanwhile, there are veterans on this team right now who could — and should — slide in and relieve the aforementioned freshmen of some of those heavy minutes. Isaac Likekele — while not a scorer, has a 13:3 assist-to-turnover ratio over his last five games. The full-court press does not seem to phase him. Handsy guards who are hoping to get away with contact don’t seem to phase him. Sometimes layups phase him a little bit, but at least he’s steady with the rock.

Tanner Holden has scored over 1,500 points in his collegiate career and became the bona fide “sixth man” when Likekele stepped away from the team for a few weeks. Holden is shooting 50% overall thus far and 50% from three-point range. He’s also shown that he can — at the very least — hold his own defensively, for the most part, which is something Sensabaugh struggles with at times. Feel free to throw Gene Brown in as well — at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, he is Ohio State’s most versatile piece to move around defensively. He’s a puzzle piece you can slot in nearly anywhere.

The bottom line is this: Ohio State plays four of its next five games on the road. As losers of three consecutive games — including to one team ranked lower than Vermont — the coaching staff cannot run out the same lineup, same game plan, and use the same answers after another loss. It’s time to mix it up. Allow the transfer portal additions that you added over the off-season to make an impact and let your star-studded freshman class become a star-studded second line if that’s what is necessary.

Perhaps something like this for the Rutgers game:

G - Isaac Likekele
G - Sean McNeil
F - Tanner Holden
F - Justice Sueing
F - Zed Key

The season isn’t over. In fact, it’s just getting started. The ship has by no means sunk, but the panic button is on the desk as we speak — and it is being smacked to smithereens.