Men's basketball: Defense is at the root of Buckeyes’ collapse

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Ohio State can’t throw the ball into the next whirlpool over in the training room right now. That’s why the Buckeyes are on their longest losing streak in six years.

That’s the consensus out there, anyway, and it has merit.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it might not even be the cause for most concern.

The Buckeyes, who play host to Illinois tonight with each team trying to end a four-game losing streak, have won games before while making less than 40 percent of their shots from the field.

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It is difficult to find many they’ve won, though, when the opponent shoots 50 percent or better, as Minnesota and Nebraska did in the past seven days. They are the only teams to make at least half their field-goal attempts against the Buckeyes this season.

Before that, Iowa shot 47.5 percent, which was the highest percentage against them to that point.

In coach Thad Matta’s 10 seasons, Ohio State has been a program that likes to say it “hangs it hat” on its defense, which ranked No. 1 nationally in adjusted points allowed per possession for much of the season and still ranks second in that statistic when the entire season is taken into consideration.

But it also is a defense that, in the past three games, has been riddled for 120 points in the lane — 42 percent of the total points opponents scored in those games — and that doesn’t include the close-in shots that drew fouls. Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska made 53 of 68 free throws.

Junior Sam Thompson said that, to him, the defense is more of a concern than the offense because “two weeks ago we weren’t shooting the ball any better but we were 15-0.”

The defense, he said, has “really been a staple of our program for my entire career here. As long as I’ve been here, we’ve been one of the top defensive teams in the country. We’ve been a team that has gotten offense out of our defense, and a team that can really control the game from the defensive end.

“These last three games, we’ve made some uncharacteristic mistakes, and we’ve seen ourselves really give away some games at the end from the defensive end. That’s something that we’ve spoken a lot about, watched a lot of film on and taken the necessary steps to correct. Our defense will be back (tonight).”

After Nebraska scored 26 of its first 34 points in the lane on Monday, Matta benched 6-foot-11 Amir Williams with 2:17 left in the first half and played without a true center the rest of the game. Ohio State rallied from a 14-point deficit to take the lead in the second half but still lost.

Matta said the blame doesn’t entirely fall on Williams, but must be shared by others, including guards who were touted coming into the season as the best group of perimeter defenders in college basketball.

“We’re not doing a good enough job of providing support, of being active,” Matta said. “We’re not tracking the ball in the paint the way we need to.”

“Basketball has become driving; that’s what everybody does. Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job of guarding the ball, keeping guys in front of us. But we’ve also got to give more support. We were guarding a guy at half-court the other night when they drove by us one time. You can’t do that. The guy (at half-court) is not going to shoot it, so what are you thinking?”

Matta also said he isn’t giving up on Williams.

“We need Amir to play well. We need him to play consistently at both ends,” Matta said. “We’ve got to get him back to tracking the ball, to blocking shots, challenging shots. When he has played well, we’ve played well, I know that.”

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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