Things were going pretty darn well for the Ohio State men’s basketball team until Jan. 5. The team was 10-3, ranked No. 24 in the country, and had the second-best odds to win the Big Ten title according to the DraftKings SportsBook. But something broke on that Thursday night.
Some late-game missteps foiled a valiant effort to upset the then-No. 1 team in the country the Purdue Boilermakers and the Buckeyes lost at home 71-69; Chirs Holtmann’s squad has only one once in the intervening 45 days. I’m not going to play sports psychologist here (although I have been watching “Shrinking” on Apple TV+, and it is excellent), but it does seem like something has gone haywire with the team since then.
The Buckeyes lost their next four games by an average score of 70.25-66. Two of those games were one-score margins and a third went to overtime. Obviously not the outcomes you want, but still respectable — especially considering what has happened since. Two of those losses came to teams still in contention for the double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament (Maryland and Rutgers) and two were to teams in the conference’s cellar alongside Ohio State (Maryland and Nebraska).
Ohio State started to show signs of its fatal flaws probably back in December when it coughed up its lead to North Carolina and lost in overtime, but the same issues became one of the central narratives of the season in that Purdue game. The team would fight and claw and — even though it wasn’t always pretty — would stick around in games until the closing minutes with a chance to pull out the victory.
However, poor execution, equally poor coaching, boneheaded turnovers, missed free throws, an inability to break a press, etc. would erase the efforts for the first 36-ish minutes of games and would confine a team that appeared to be on the cusp of gelling to the L-column once again.
Following a 93-77 win over Iowa on Jan. 21 to break the losing streak, we saw these nasty habits continue to creep up again and again, but the margins of defeat continued to grow as any semblance of the team that started January with designs on a conference crown have by now nearly completely disappeared. The Buckeyes' last two losses have been by an average of 19 points and things are not especially looking up today.
The Scarlet and Gray will travel to Mackey Arena for a 1 p.m. ET tip and currently, according to the DraftKings SportsBook, they are 11.5-point underdogs, and man does that feel like an easy cover for the Boilers, despite the two teams’ earlier outcome. With all due credit to Ohio State’s players, I think that they have objectively continued to play as hard as they possibly could have during this horrible six-week slump and they have said all of the right things in postgame press conferences. While obviously, things will vary for each individual player, as an outside observer, I do not see a team that has quit on each other, their coaches, or their program.
However, what I do see is a group of young men who have been beaten down by everything that has gone wrong in the past month and a half; beaten down by the weight of their own personal and collective expectations crumbling down around them. No matter how much they want to give the game the same effort that they did when things were clicking, that’s just not possible, as they have been yoked to all of the disappointment of the past 13 games and it is literally and metaphorically making it more difficult to move forward.
In this era of college basketball with transfers, one-and-dones, and NIL opportunities, losing can be even more psychologically destructive than it was in the past. Players rightly have to consider their own individual futures and what is best for them, so invariably thoughts of moving on will creep in; insecurities, uncertainty, and even resentment can take root in someone’s psyche, even if they are the most committed and dedicated player on a team.
So, while following the not-so-nice 71-69 loss to the Boilermakers on Jan. 5, the game might have appeared to be just a speed bump, a missed opportunity in a still promising season, it was, in fact, the beginning of the end for this Buckeye team. The frustrating threads of late-game incompetence were fully on display in that game and they have become the unfortunate calling card of this season’s squad.
While it certainly wouldn’t redeem everything lost this season, a win on the road against No. 2 Purdue would certainly be welcomed measure of revenge, the odds do not suggest that’s in the cards for this afternoon.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.