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Chris Holtmann and his veterans must lead the way if Ohio State hopes to dance in March

Growing pains were to be expected, but OSU mens basketball needs better coaching and stronger leadership to turn this season around.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Ohio State mens basketball is down bad right now... real bad.

After a 10-4 start, during which Chris Holtmann’s team defeated a ranked (at the time) Texas Tech squad, hung with San Diego State and North Carolina, and nearly knocked off No. 1 Purdue on Jan. 5, the Buckeyes have since dropped five of six and plummeted toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Ardent fans and those within the program could, if they were so inclined, point to injuries, youth, and/or plain old bad luck as the reason(s) for OSU’s recent struggles, but doing so would only come across as lame excuse-making. The simple truth is that Holtmann and his players have collectively failed to prepare and perform since the calendar flipped.

As a long-time Holtmann defender, it is painful to see his 2022-23 squad struggle so immensely. I think the salmon-suited one is a hell of a coach, but blame for the Buckeyes’ inability to break a press or get in and out of offensive/defensive sets ultimately falls at his feet. Not being able to settle on a lineup shows a lack of coaching conviction and, in my mind, a lack of preparedness. And guys playing without juice? Well that is just inexcusable.

The Holt-Mann should be getting more out of this talented group than he currently is. I emphasize “currently” because despite my frustration(s), I still believe that some sort of turnaround could be on the horizon. But it needs to happen quickly.

Of course, putting all of Ohio State’s struggles on the shoulders of Holtmann would be an egregious mistake — for a number of reasons.

First and foremost among them is the inarguable fact that the Big Ten is hard! It is arguably the most competitive conference in all of college basketball. Losses are/were bound to happen. Look no further than 2018-19, when the Buckeyes went 8-12 in conference play, yet still won 20 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. So a handful of losses in either January or February is not indicative of a bad team, at least not in the Big Ten.

Also not helping matters for OSU is the poor performance of certain players. Key players, in fact. Important, important guys have just flat-out stunk for long stretches in January, and coaching can only do so much to offset that. Just like the schedule can only provide so many “freebies”. But the Buckeyes didn’t even take advantage of those!

Losses to Minnesota and Nebraska were embarrassing, but that’s what happens when Brice Sensabaugh is taking on entire teams like Jon Snow during the Battle of the Bastards. Sensabaugh does not get a free pass here either, but his recent play (AKA scoring) has at least kept Ohio State competitive in some of these January games.

Pictured: Brice Sensabaugh when the OSU offense becomes stagnant

Any hope for a turnaround begins with the vets. Older, more experienced players need to play much better than they have recently.

At the top of that list is Justice Sueing. Since OSU’s loss at Maryland, during which he played very well, the sixth-year senior has been... not good. I’m pulling punches with my criticism because I like Sueing. But over the Buckeyes’ last five games, he is averaging nine points on 35 percent shooting. He also has more turnovers than assists during that time. Maybe this is always who the former Cal Bear was destined to be, but I think Holtmann and the Ohio State staff expected Sueing to be in the conversation for their best player.

Unfortunately, individual struggles have been not exclusive to the Hawaii native. Since returning from a shoulder injury, Zed Key has been roughly average — if looking at the totality of his career. But the Buckeyes need December’s version of Key, who was experiencing a real breakout. In seven games played between November 22 and December 21 (2022), the Bay Shore big man averaged 15.3 points per game and had three different outputs of 19 or more. He has scored more than 11 only once since then. Ohio State fans are hoping Key returns to his earlier form as that shoulder (and knee) continues to heal.

Let’s add Tanner Holden, Isaac Likekele, and Sean McNeil to this list while we’re at it. No veteran is beyond reproach as OSU limps through their Big Ten schedule. Expectations can be debated, but there is no arguing that Holden and Likekele in particular are putting up poor numbers. McNeil packs a heck of a scoring punch, but he will also disappear for stretches and/or play a one-dimensional game.

The struggles are all-inclusive for this team, but in order to achieve any sort of success moving forward, the older players must lead by example. Sage wisdom and strong encouragement don’t have the same impact if those giving it are putting up bricks and turning the ball over.

It has been a rough stretch for Ohio State, but there are still 11 games left in this ‘22-23 regular season. There is more than enough time to right the ship — if all parties perform much, much better. But it will take more than a few in-game adjustments and a few made jumpers. It will also require coaches and players leading from the front, and taking collective ownership of recent failures. It never comes down to one thing or one player, so hopefully the Buckeyes band together and figure this thing out before the music stops.