When Ohio State fumbled away a golden opportunity to knock off the top-ranked Purdue Boilermakers in Columbus on Jan. 5, the loss was widely viewed as another growing pain for a young-but-talented basketball team that would still have much to say about the Big Ten race by season’s end.
Fast forward two weeks and Ohio State is officially in freefall mode after dropping its fourth consecutive game with an overtime loss at Rutgers on Sunday afternoon.
Ohio State shot just 34% in the game, which it still led by six midway through the second half before Rutgers battled back to force overtime. After Ohio State took a 61-60 lead with 1:50 remaining in overtime, Rutgers closed on an 8-0 run to secure the win.
Now, for the fourth time in the past five seasons under head coach Chris Holtmann, Ohio State must find a way to shake off a four-game skid and salvage a season that is on the brink entering a rough stretch of the schedule. Ohio State returns to action at Nebraska (9-9) on Wednesday before hosting Iowa and then playing consecutive road games at Illinois and Indiana to close out the month.
From there, Ohio State will host Wisconsin before traveling to take on Michigan to finish a six-game stretch that could very well bury its NCAA Tournament hopes should the prolonged struggle continue. At just 10-7 overall and 2-4 in the conference, the season has grown late quickly for a team that has left itself with a slim margin for error with a current resume that is flimsy and limited opportunities for marquee wins still to come.
“Like anything, it tests the character of your group and the resiliency of the group,” Holtmann said of the losing streak on Monday. “We’ll see how we respond. Obviously, it’s a significant remainder of the Big Ten season to go. There’s a lot in front of us. I think your leadership, your resilience, and your toughmindedness of the group gets tested. And again, that’s the case for a lot of teams around the country and a lot of teams in leagues where there’s just a lot of good teams.”
While the final results have not been there, Ohio State doesn’t appear to be far off from righting the ship. Having either led or trailed by no more than three points in the final five minutes of each of the four losses, just a few plays per game are separating Ohio State from a much different outlook on the season. Not that the close losses represent any sort of silver lining for Holtmann, of course.
“It just challenges you to find ways to be a few possessions better in areas each half,” he said of the close losses. “Certainly, if we were getting blown out, I think you’d have more cause for concern because that would be more of an indictment on the number of possessions that you’ve lost in each half. But neither feels very good.”
Sink or swim over the next few weeks, Ohio State’s path forward will be heavily dictated by its veteran leadership, particularly off the floor. Freshmen guards Bruce Thornton and Brice Sensabaugh have performed admirably in their first seasons of college basketball, and fellow freshmen Felix Okpara and Roddy Gayle Jr. have also been counted on to give Holtmann quality minutes in all 17 games.
But for a quartet of freshmen still finding their way at the highest level of college basketball while also trying to navigate the always-rigorous Big Ten season, the added weight of a lengthy losing streak will only add to those difficulties. Being able to rely on the veteran leadership of guys like Zed Key and Justice Sueing, who have experienced similar struggles in previous years, will be pivotal as Ohio State hopes to get back on track, a fact that has not been lost on Holtmann.
“You certainly need your leadership in this moment,” Holtmann said. “We’re going to need them the rest of the way. I think in January and February, your leadership really gets defined. And I’m not putting all the responsibility on them, but I think it’s going to be really critical for the older guys to be able to lead in ways that good leaders lead.
“They control things in the locker room, they limit distractions, and they bring perspective. They have poise in the midst of challenging moments … That’s what’s going to be needed in this moment, and that’s the challenge in front of those guys.”