To put it frankly: this basketball season has been an abject disaster for Chris Holtmann and the Ohio State Buckeyes. After winning two of its first three Big Ten games of the year, Ohio State has won just one of its last eight, currently sitting in 13th place in the conference with a record of 3-8.
While mathematically the Buckeyes still have enough games remaining to get to 20 or more wins and compete for an NCAA Tournament bid, most anyone who has watched this team this year knows those odds are slim to none. Ohio State is currently ranked 120th in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions. The Buckeyes are also allowing their opponents to shoot 35.8% from three-point range, which is the second-worst mark in the Big Ten.
To put it in perspective, two of Ohio State’s three most efficient offensive showings in Big Ten play have been its last two games, against Illinois and Iowa. You would think that would amount to wins, but alas, the Buckeyes had two of their worst defensive outings of the season in those games as well, resulting in losses in both games. This team just isn’t capable of getting defensive stops when it needs them the worst, making it hard to win even on nights when the offense is clicking at a high level.
Another major issue for this team that has reared its head on more than one occasion this year? Second-half stumbles. Ohio State held a 12-point halftime lead against Penn State on the road, a one-point lead over Indiana on the road, and a two-point halftime lead over Iowa on the road. The Buckeyes lost all three games.
Entering Tuesday’s game, Ohio State had been outscored by 74 points in the second half of Big Ten games. That means through 11 games, the Buckeyes have (on average) been outscored by their opponents by 6.7 points in the second half of games this season. The only team that’s been worse is Michigan, which has been outscored by a whopping 113 points in the second half of games this year.
It’s not just losing games where you lead at halftime, either — regardless of this team’s status at halftime, they pretty consistently play much worse after coming out of the locker room.
Ohio State trailed by 11 at halftime against Northwestern — a steep hill to climb certainly, but that’s a deficit that teams overcome all the time and find a way to win. The Buckeyes proceeded to get out-classed, out-shot, and out-coached in the second half, and wound up losing by 25 in one of the most embarrassing performances from this team in the last decade.
Ohio State had a 13-point halftime lead over Rutgers on January 3rd after playing one of its most complete first halves of basketball all season. The Buckeyes shot 53% in the first half, knocked down NINE three-pointers, and assisted on 13 of its 17 made baskets. They followed that up by getting out-worked and out-hustled in the second half by Rutgers, allowing the Scarlet Knights to score 11 second-chance points on a whopping 10 offensive rebounds. Rutgers never caught up, but Ohio State’s 17-point lead was trimmed to just a single point in the second half. Ohio State would go on to win, 76-72.
As you can see, second halves are not this particular team’s forte, and it’s not only when they have a big lead. This isn’t a team that “blows second-half leads.” This is a team that is consistently outplayed in the second half of games, regardless of if they’re up, down, or tied at halftime.
The players themselves are certainly at fault for that — they’re the ones who have to continue to hit shots in the second half. They’re the ones who have to mentally keep up a wall in the second half, and not play differently just because they’re up 17 or 18 points. Far too often this season, Ohio State has sagged off of shooters or failed to switch quickly enough, resulting in open second-half looks for their opponents.
Mentally, they’re not valuing those possessions as much as they did in the first half, because they’re up 18. But when you string together several of those half-ass possessions, that 18-point lead quickly shrivels into a six-point lead, and then you look up and realize there’s still six minutes to go in the game. Gulp.
That’s also on the coaches, because at the end of the day, everything falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff, right? If the team doesn’t have the same fiery mentality in the second half of games that it does in the first half, that’s on the coaches for not motivating their players. That’s on the coaches for not making sure that their guys are playing with a sense of urgency, even when things are going well and they have a lead.
Chris Holtmann has said repeatedly that Ohio State needs to be able to “rely on its defense to close out games” which is true, but for the first two-thirds of the season, this team has been unable to do that. In losses to Penn State, Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa, Ohio State found itself in one or two-possession games with five minutes (or less) remaining. That’s exactly where you want to be — just a few stops away from winning the game. In each of those four games, the Buckeyes weren’t able to get the stops it needed and lost all four.
I don’t think this team’s conditioning is the issue — they don’t look any more tired than you’d expect any other college basketball team to look playing three games per week in February. I think this team’s second-half struggles are tied to two things:
A) Poorly coached on the defensive side of the ball
B) Failure to adjust to the other team’s adjustments in the second half of games
The numbers back it up. This is a bad second-half basketball team, and there’s enough meat on the bone now to recognize that’s part of the identity of the 2023-2024 Ohio State men’s basketball team. It’s going to continue to haunt them down the stretch, and will likely be a big reason we see massive changes with the program come April.