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Column: After four-game losing streak, Ohio State men’s basketball is looking for its identity

The Buckeyes are on an 0-4 skid, and the past four performances leave little reason for hope.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball has struggled of late, with four-straight losses, the latest of which coming Sunday on the road against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in overtime. These recent games have been close, and in a vacuum the results in themselves aren’t cause for concern as college basketball is crazy. But with the four losses happening in a row, with similar issues arising in all four, the questions around the basketball program are becoming louder.

Over the years, Holtmann has garnered a lot of unwarranted negative attention while keeping the program afloat. The Buckeyes have made the tournament every year under Holtmann, and would have qualified in 2020 if the tournament was not cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s an incredible floor for a program to be at, but with zero trips to the second weekend of the tourney, stretches like this will not keep critics quiet. Losing streaks happen in college basketball, but the last four games raise concerns for how this season will go for the Buckeyes.

None of the last four games would have been bad in themselves, but the consecutive nature of them really magnifies the current issues for the Buckeyes. When they play defense, their offense struggles. When they have lineups more proficient at scoring, they give just as many buckets back. That is a not a recipe for success, and creates issues in regards to identity. For Holtmann, the offensive efficiency and timely defense has been the way, but as of late both those areas have failed.

That’s why these last four games represent a watershed for the program as this season continues. Losing a consistent player in Zed Key against Purdue is enough to find the 2-point loss respectable, but the way the game ended with a blown lead loses the luster of a strong performance. Following that up with a flat performance on the road against Maryland where the offense went through long stretches of stagnation, and the defensive lapses by young players started to show cracks.

These losses were only made greater with an incredibly disappointing performance at home against Minnesota — a team 0-4 in conference play at tipoff. Losing that game was inexcusable, and that leads us to Sunday against Rutgers. With the three consecutive losses, Ohio State struggled offensively, shooting 34.3 percent from the floor and once again collapsed late to give a game away.

The root of the problem for the Buckeyes starts with an inconsistent level of play from the more experienced players on the roster. With Zed Key playing limited minutes, Justice Sueing needs to find more ways to score efficiently. Combine that with Isaac Likekele scoring four points in four games and Sean McNeil having hot-and-cold stretches, this is putting an uncomfortable onus on the young players to create offense.

Bruce Thornton has been a solid guard in his first season, expecting him to add anything out of the ordinary to the points category on the box score is not fair. Brice Sensabaugh has shown to be a defensive liability to the point of getting benched in favor of a more defensive lineup against Rutgers. Sensabaugh was also the main reason the Buckeyes were in the game in the end with his offensive capabilities, scoring 17 second half points.

That still was not enough. In Ohio State’s best defensive game of the year, they were outscored 68-64, and the decision to choose defense backfired for Holtmann in the long run.

This just emphasizes the issues of this team. There is a definitive lack of identity in the program at this point, and if that doesn’t change, this season could be another year wasted.

Starting with program expectations, end of season results under Holtmann have not varied. The team has won 20 or 21 games in the last four seasons. As of now the Buckeyes are looking like a team that would be falling short of that of that mark. If Holtmann goes another year with a lottery pick and no success in March, the fans who aren’t already restless will likely be joining the fray.

The expectations of tournament success are sometimes a little overbearing. If the Buckeyes make a run in March, no one will remember this stretch in January, but that’s a question that will be answered down the road. The current results still matter, and if the Buckeyes don’t improve quickly, this can be the start of a downward trajectory.

This season, the Buckeyes were never conference title favorites. Ohio State was projected to finish fifth place in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes right now rank 12th out of 14 teams. There is a long way to go, and there is precedent for improvement with Ohio State having a rough January — in 2019 Ohio State was 2-6 with an eerily similar four game stretch, then turned it around to get back into conference and tournament contention, closing the year on an 8-3 run. Unfortunately, that season was deterred by a global pandemic, and the Buckeyes did not get to see the final results through.

For the identity of this team, the offensive efficiency is still there. Ohio State is fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offensive efficiency metric, and 104th in Adjusted defensive efficiency. Holtmann’s teams have never been elite on the defensive side of the ball, but that stat is problematic when the offense goes cold. Outside of Sensabaugh, there hasn’t been a player who has found any consistency on the offensive end — and Sensabaugh has been far from an efficient scorer.

Going back to the drawing board, the Buckeyes need to get back to the strengths of this team. Crisp offensive sets, team rebounding, and strong communication on the defensive end. Getting burned on switches and not fighting through ball screens can not be the norm moving forward if the Buckeyes want to right the ship.

Hopefully this game turns into a foundational building block on the defensive end, because they did limit the Scarlet Knights to the second lowest shooting percentage in conference play. If they can finally match the effort on both sides of the ball there is reason to believe the Buckeyes can turn this thing around.

Going from there and looking ahead for the Buckeyes, they return to the floor against Nebraska in Lincoln for what is now a huge road game. If they drop a fifth straight, the defcon level raises inside the program, and the voices wanting change will have another bullet point to their arguments. With a stretch following that includes Illinois, Iowa, a struggling Indiana, a ranked Wisconsin, and a Michigan team who is also looking to right the ship. There is not an easy win in the Big Ten, and that is why the 0-4 stretch is that much more amplified.

For the Buckeyes, the margin of error is gone, and the pressure cooker is ready to pop. Going 0-4 in a stretch where 2-2 probably would have been acceptable goes to show just how fast the fall can occur. Nebraska is 9-9 and 2-5 in conference play, and this is as close to a get-right game as you can get. The Basketball Buckeyes have few opportunities left to get this back on track, if not there will be a lot of questions. And if that stretch turns from 0-4 to 0-5, there is not much anyone can say to change the minds of public opinion.

Finding what this team wants to be will be crucial. Diving in with the young guys can at least raise the excitement levels. Playing a defensive brand is not Holtmann’s identity, but without consistent offense it might need to be the case. Either way, picking one is a start, and building from there is needed.

The talent is there for the Buckeyes, and bringing in the amount of new faces mean there were going to be some growing pains. Unfortunately, the time for growing is done, and results need to matter. For Holtmann and the Buckeyes, it is time to find an identity for the 2022-2023 team.

Ohio State men’s basketball is better than what they have shown, and now it is time for them to show they are still a team to believe in.