The Ohio State’s men’s basketball team has lost nine of its last 10 games, which is the team’s worst run of any form since the 1997-98 season. Things seemed to be going well until this swoon began with a late blown lead over No. 1 Purdue back on Jan. 5. The Buckeyes basically had only to hit free throws to seal the upset win at home, but a turnover deep in their own back court allowed the Boilermakers to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
That painful loss knocked the wheels off the season, and things unraveled quickly. Ohio State entered that game with a 10-3 record, losing only to a good San Diego State team in the Maui Invitational, to Duke on the road, and in overtime against North Carolina at the CBS Sports Classic in New York.
After that loss to the Tar Heels, the Buckeyes reeled off three-straight wins, then let that late lead slip away against the Boilermakers. Ever since, Ohio State has been in free fall, adding four more consecutive losses to the wrong side of the win-loss column after the Purdue defeat, and then getting just the briefest respite with a 93-77 dismantling of Iowa before dropping four more in a row.
The Buckeyes entered the weekend already easily in the worst run of form of the Chris Holtmann era, and then suffered a humiliating lopsided defeat to rival Michigan on Sunday.
Justice Sueing missed an easy shot from just a few feet out late in the first half that would have cut the Wolverines’ lead to just one point, but that miss led to a run that saw Michigan extend its lead to eight. Ohio State ultimately trailed by five at the break after settling for a terrible shot at the buzzer — a contested three from Sueing.
Extended ineffective minutes in the second half by Eugene Brown and Felix Opara allowed Michigan to maintain its lead throughout the second half, and the Buckeyes’ plummet continued with a 77-69 loss in Ann Arbor that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.
Previously, the worst runs under Holtmann for the Buckeyes were back-to-back seasons with 1-6 stretches in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Dropping nine of 10 after that start is unacceptable. That Holtmann hasn’t found any combination of lineups or tactics to halt the slide is concerning.
Did Ohio State miss that badly on talent evaluation and recruiting? Is the current roster unteachable or tuning out the instruction being given? Are the coaches failing the players? It is likely some combination of that.
Ohio State’s five consecutive losses prior to the win over Iowa equaled the worst stretch of Holtmann’s OSU tenure. His Buckeyes lost five consecutive games from Jan. 5-23, 2019, and four of those losses were by double figures. These losses have mostly been closer, but that’s only made them more frustrating.
This year’s poor stretch under Holtmann is also worse than any the Buckeyes had in 13 seasons under Thad Matta. One must go back to the Jim O’Brien era to find anything resembling this current run. Ohio State lost six out of seven under O’Brien in his final season from Jan. 4-28, 2004, but even that is better than what this year’s team has done since that late meltdown against the Boilermakers.
To find a worse stretch, you have to go way back to O’Brien’s first year with the Buckeyes in 1997-98, when Ohio State lost 17 consecutive games from Dec. 28 to Feb. 1. That team finished the year losing 19 of its last 20.
The Buckeyes weren’t very good in Randy Ayers’ final season of 1996-97, but they were much better than O’Brien’s first team. Ayers’ final OSU team finished the season with six consecutive losses and lost eight of its last nine games, ending the season with a dreadful 15-17 record. Sitting at 11-12 this year, the Buckeyes have some work to do to be as good as the last Ayers team.
There is a segment of the OSU fanbase that assumes Ohio State’s ceiling is where the team was under Matta — and that Holtmann is a better coach than fans should reasonably expect at the helm of the Buckeyes. I don’t support that viewpoint. While I genuinely like Holtmann as a person, and up to this point as Ohio State’s coach, I’m not sure if this is fixable.
Ohio State shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone in the country, and should be able to compete at a high level in men’s basketball. For many years, Ohio State has been much closer to becoming an elite men’s basketball program than it has been to reverting to what is largely perceived as the mediocrity of the Eldon Miller era.
For the record, Miller had only one losing season in Columbus — his first, when the Buckeyes were 11-16 (6-12 in the B1G) in 1976-77. After that, Miller’s worst season in conference play was 8-10.
Holtmann’s 2022-2023 Buckeyes are below .500 now and don’t seem capable — at the moment, at least — of turning things around and finishing with a winning record, even though there is plenty of time to do so.
Getting back to where this program can and should realistically be, even in a rebuilding year, fans should reasonably be able to expect a winning record. The non-conference schedule is full of beatable teams, and even though the league is a tough one, there’s no reason not to expect the team to be able to compete to the point of being somewhere in the neighborhood of the .500 mark in conference play. This year’s team dropped to 3-9 in the Big Ten this season on Sunday.
When Matta was at the helm, there were good years and rebuilds, but he never allowed things to reach this current nadir, even if his final two seasons were his worst (21-14 in 2015-2016 (11-7 in the B1G) and 17-15 in 2016-2017 (7-11 in the conference)). This year’s team must win half of its remaining games to get to seven league wins. It’s possible, but that’s going to require a new mentality and a lot more execution on the court.
An abnormally poor three-point shooting night against Kentucky in 2011 — for a team that was usually good from the arc — and a 2007 Florida team that had enough talented big men to throw at Greg Oden, absorbing lots of fouls, are likely all that stood between Matta and two national titles at Ohio State. While the Buckeyes are members of a difficult hoops conference, there is precedent that the team can have sustained success at a higher level than it has shown in recent years under Holtmann.
It’s difficult to say where Ohio State’s men’s basketball team would be if it had held on to beat Purdue in early January. It seemed like a club closer to the top of the Big Ten than the bottom, but perhaps this current funk was always coming. It’s not apparent how this team can end the year on a positive, but maybe it has some surprises left to show us.
To my fellow Buckeyes who live where sports gambling is legal, I recommend not betting on it.