For the better part of four games, Ohio State treated defense like a communicable disease. The Buckeyes shot like they wore potholders on their hands. They passed and dribbled like they were infected with a case of the dropsies.
They lost four straight for the first time under coach Thad Matta, which set off air raid sirens around the state that awakened basketball alarmists from their slumber.
When 15-0 became 15-4, it became clear to every self-proclaimed basketball expert in the Northern Hemisphere that the Buckeyes were headed for deep trouble, and that’s certainly possible even after they rebounded on Thursday with a tedious 62-55 win over an Illinois team that also was mired in a four-game losing streak.
But there is also this to consider: Ohio State’s past two teams experienced rough stretches during the conference season, and they ended in the Final Four and Elite Eight.
Last year, the Buckeyes lost in overtime at No. 3 Michigan, lost to No. 1 Indiana at home, beat Northwestern, and then lost at No. 20 Wisconsin 71-49 in a debacle that none of those OSU players have forgotten. They were 18-7 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten at the time and looked like they were grooming themselves for a not-so-spirited run at the NIT.
They played like a team that wasn’t nearly as good as its early success indicated, then won 11 straight before losing to Wichita State in the Elite Eight, finishing 29-8.
The year before they lost three of five in February, then won eight of the next nine, finally losing in the Final Four to Kansas.
“Last year when we lost to Wisconsin, that was an embarrassing loss for us,” junior center Amir Williams said. “We didn’t play our best basketball that day, and I don’t think any of us showed up to play the game. I think the four-game losing streak (was) kind of the same thing.
“It’s kind of embarrassing because none of us had ever lost four in a row. So our mindsets have changed. Our moods are better. We know what we have to do to win basketball games now. We can’t take any team for granted.”
Why they might have done that even unconsciously is puzzling, given that freshman Marc Loving is the only regular player who hasn’t been through the Big Ten meat grinder.
“The one thing I will say, during those four games, I never questioned our effort,” Matta said. “We were playing really hard. Even (in the loss) at Nebraska, I think they had 11 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, or somewhere pretty close to that.
“When (we) hit adversity. … I’ve liked how this team has come back to practice. I’ve liked how they wanted to do a little bit more. But I think so much is still to be told with how much we still have to play.”
With last-place Penn State (“They’ve been in every single game that they’ve played this season”) at Value City Arena tonight, Matta knows there are no givens. He knows the ebbs and flows of a season can sometimes catch a coach by surprise.
“That’s what you deal with, I think, in coaching,” he said. “Just trying to find the buttons. I’ve told these guys, ‘I’m tired of spending my time trying to think what you’re thinking. Let’s get on the same page in terms of what we need to get accomplished.’ ”
Matta’s past success at finding a way to do that in stressful times is worth considering, even if he did acknowledge that what works for one team might not work for another.
“It’s different for different teams, it’s different for different players,” Matta said. “You sound like a coach who called me Sunday night, a very good friend of mine. He said, ‘I know you’ve been through a tough stretch, what did you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I kind of Bill Belichicked it. I stayed real calm. Then I texted him last night and said, ‘Now, I’ve Bobby Knighted a guy’s (rear) today in practice.’ ”
“There is no right or wrong.”
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.