Unless you’ve been shrewdly hibernating this new year, you’re well aware the former top-ranked team in the country (if you go by the NCAA’s new Net rankings) has fallen on hard times with four consecutive losses. In what feels like a reversal from last year in which fans stomached a dicey start in non-conference play only to be surprised by a great run in the Big Ten, Ohio State now finds itself on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
For many this comes as a surprise, but it really shouldn’t as the Buckeyes have had adjust to the growing pains of a very young team and the Big Ten being a much improved conference this season. Below we look at some of the issues that have brought the Buckeyes back to reality and perhaps how they can go about addressing them.
Kaleb Wesson’s foul problems (obviously)
The most common element across the four losses has been the elder Wesson’s foul problems. Dissecting this a bit we find:
Michigan State: Wesson fouled out with just under two minutes to go. He picked up his second and third fouls right in a row to start the second half and had to sit — and then sit again when he picked up his fourth foul with just over nine minutes to go in the second half. While Wesson played his standard 29 minutes and scored 25 points, his time on the bench was the key culprit for Michigan State outscoring the Buckeyes by 16 points in the second half.
Rutgers: Before the first media timeout, Wesson had two fouls and spent a large portion of the first half on the bench, only playing 26 minutes while four other Buckeyes clocked more minutes than the star sophomore. He finished the game with four fouls and 18 points, but this is easily a game that could have gone the Buckeyes way if Wesson played another 4 to 8 minutes rather than managing foul trouble.
Iowa: For the second game in a row, Wesson found himself relegated to the bench for most of the first half with two quick fouls before the first media timeout. Wesson finished the game logging 23 minutes, two points and four fouls in his worst performance of the year.
Maryland: Wesson picked up his second and third fouls quickly to start to the second half and went to the bench with the Buckeyes trailing by four. When he returned the deficit had grown to 10. For the game, Wesson was able to log 32 minutes and score eleven points, but the game started to slide away for good as he sat with another quick burst of fouls.
Wesson is now in a stretch in which he’s committed four or five fouls in six of the last seven games. To start the year, Wesson went his first six games without picking up a fourth foul.
Offensively, Wesson is the centerpiece of coach Chris Holtmann’s attack and when he’s in, the Buckeyes offense has much more ball movement and fluidity. Without him … not so much.
Defensively, Kyle Young gives up an inch or two to Wesson and a whopping 65 pounds. Even when Wesson is playing with fouls, he’s much more conservative on challenging shots, fighting for position and fighting around screens. Simply said, when Wesson is on the bench beyond his normal rest, the Buckeyes are bleeding points.
Possible fixes: Trying to rewire a player to not foul is not easy. Let’s not go there, plus some of these have been ticky tacky. Some possibilities here include:
- Subbing out Wesson if he picks up a quick first foul. Thus far Holtmann has chosen to keep playing Wesson, likely in hopes of getting him into the flow of the game and getting him to his normal rest period midway through the first half. This has had mixed results thus far. Perhaps the knowledge that a quick foul would lead to a quick hook might help keep Wesson more mindful of his early foul issues. Bench time early in the game also may resonate in terms of driving home the major significance that his next foul will play in the game.
- Putting Wesson in the middle of a 2-3 zone. This is a classic technique to protect your big man. The Bucks have used the 2-3 zone in about half of their games, but usually for only a few possessions in certain scenarios. It’s never been deployed in an effort to take defensive pressure off of Wesson.
- If Holtmann doesn’t want to go with more zone, another possibility could be just playing Jaedon LeDee and Kyle Young at the same time. LeDee seems to be a bit foul prone himself, but he has shown some flashes and is the better defensive matchup for bigger more offensively gifted big men. Young has been the team’s most consistent player, and while the team would lose some ball handling and perimeter shooting playing both of them, this would allow the Buckeyes to not give up and size and perhaps get away with having some smaller lineups at the other three positions.
Getting killed at the free throw line
This would give any coach an ulcer, but the last four games the Buckeyes are giving have scored 37 fewer points than their opponents at the line. That’s nearly a 10-point deficit per game!
Using my PHD in basketball, I can tell you this stems from A) fouling too much on defense and B) settling for perimeter jump shots.
Defensively there is a lot of work to do. Mixing in some 2-3 zone could help a bit here as well. You can tell some players get a bit frustrated and are more prone to foul as the game has slipped away, so perhaps Holtmann may need to make some changes to put out those fires before the flare up.
I think another thing Holtmann would be wise to look at is just throttling down the defense on the perimeter, especially when the opponent is in the bonus. The Buckeyes have picked up a lot of late shot clock fouls far away from the basket. Additionally defenders have often got overextended on the perimeter, which has put pressure on the defense to rotate towards a driving opponent. Defensive intensity and aggressiveness has been a strength under Holtmann, but it’s unfortunately become a weapon being used against the Buckeyes of late as more athletic opponents in conference play have been more willing to take on defenders.
Offensively, Wesson playing more minutes certainly helps. Beyond that, this is a team where many of the players prefer working for an open jump shot rather than testing the interior. The majority of the Ohio State penetrations are one dribble and a kickout opposed to a second dribble and move towards the basket. Perhaps next year’s highly-touted signing class will add a bit more offensive assertiveness in terms of attacking the basket. But for now, just hope that any of the guards and wings who have a matchup they like feel more empowered to take their guy off the dribble especially late in possessions. This team seems to shoot a lot of stepback jumpers.
No true point guard
Many Buckeye fans lament the early departures of guys who haven’t yet hit NBA paydirt like LaQuinton Ross, DeShaun Thomas and Kaeta Bates Diop. While those have stung, you can argue Braxton Beverly’s unexpected transfer to North Carolina State has been the move that has been most detrimental to the program.
Beverly is no lottery pick, but he’s a pure point guard. At North Carolina State he’s averaged 9 points per game in his first two seasons thus far, has shoot 38 percent from 3-point range — and more importantly has averaged only 1.6 turnovers a game as the Wolfpack’s primary ball handler.
As well as the Buckeyes have done scrambling to plug that hole with Dakich, Woods, and Jackson (brought in prior to Beverly’s exit), it’s been a lot of square pegs in round holes.
Woods and Jackson have shot 28 percent from 3-point range during the losing streak, with Woods in a particularly nasty funk only scoring 15 points during that stretch. Jackson and Woods, to their credit, have been serviceable playing out of position on a very young team. But the lack of a pure point guard has long been a major pain point for Holtmann since he stepped onto campus.
Not sure there is one here. Maybe a little more Duane Washington perhaps? DJ Carton can’t get here soon enough.
Defense is predictable, breaks down late in possessions
What started out as a strength this season is slowly trending towards becoming a weakness. In significant early season wins the Buckeyes didn’t yield over 67 points as they gave up 56 to Cincinnati, 60 to Creighton, 59 to Minnesota, 67 to Illinois and 66 to UCLA. The four-game losing streak has seen opponents score 86, 64, 72, and 75.
Part of that ties back to Wesson’s fouls and the huge hole at the free-throw line. But if you watch closely, the Buckeyes are struggling much more frequently on defense.
Double teams have been a major pain point as the Buckeyes have either picked up a foul or given up an easy bucket when trying to double team a post player threat. The Buckeyes have also given up a lot of easy looks or bailout fouls late in possessions after having very strong defensive efforts up until the last few seconds. The team is just giving up far too many good looks to their opponents with Michigan State shooting 54 percent and Maryland shooting an alarming 58 percent from the field. It’s out of character for a Chris Holtmann-coached team and something that you’d hope goes away just like the recent Ohio weather.
This team is young, and you’d think they’ll make strides as they go. Beyond that, I’d like to see Holtmann deploy a little full court or three-quarter court pressure from time to time. As the last four games of slipped away, he’s been slow to do that beyond obvious times to use it. If used gently at times, it at a very least can delay the opponent from getting into their half-court offense. With the Buckeyes struggling to guard for a full 30 seconds, perhaps an extra handful of seconds of guarding in the backcourt will reduce that burden.
Mixing in some zone could also work, although the small sample size of zone I’ve seen hasn’t been that encouraging.
The double teams have been just awful. It seems like a third of the time Ohio State used them in the post it’s resulted in a foul and another third have been a made 3-pointer. I’d maybe steer away from them and perhaps just see if LeDee can mature here when Wesson is in foul trouble — or just try to get away with some more zone especially if the other team has a dicey shooting team on the floor. While you can’t totally abandon this concept, the Buckeyes probably need to shy away from it more regularly given what we’ve seen and just live with more interior shots that aren’t aggressively contested.
What to expect?
Realistically the team is young and the Big Ten is just top to bottom a lot more competitive. There are very few gimmes left on the schedule. Fans should have expected a bigger step back this year after replacing Diop, Tate and Williams from last year’s surprise squad, but early season success put cold water on that.
Wesson managing his fouls better, the free discrepancy, and just more consistent defense are all tangible things that are likely to improve. But I’m not sure that this year’s team has enough experience and the right ingredients to be much of a force within the conference or in the tournament. That said, the exact same thing could have been said a little more than a year ago.