by Leigh Klein / @LeighAlanKlein
The streak, in Buckeye land, is in jeopardy.
For the past four years, Ohio State has made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, the longest active streak in Division 1 basketball. It looked as if this might continue as the Buckeyes started the season with 15 consecutive wins. The preseason No. 11 11 team ascended to third in the nation before the wheels seemingly fell off . The Buckeyes dropped five of their next seven games.
Ohio State is currently ranked as the No. 120 most efficient offense in the nation, its worst ranking under head coach Thad Matta. Then there is the vaunted Buckeyes defense, now under immense pressure to limit opponents to below the 70-point threshold. When opponents have scored 70 points or more this season, the Buckeyes have lost all three of those contests. Simply, the defense can’t be expected to carry the load all the time when the offense continues to sputter.
The loss of junior, Deshaun Thomas, who opted to play professionally, has forced other players to step up and shoulder the load like Thomas did when Jared Sullinger departed. This transition has not gone as smoothly as initially thought. With seven of its top-nine players from last season returning and two top-100 recruits including Ohio Mr. Basketball, Marc Loving, there is talent in Columbus. Both Amir Williams and Shannon Scott were McDonald’s All-Americans and LaQuinton Ross was once a top ten player in his class nationally.
On paper, this team should be winning.
Offensive production this season has improved for Lenzelle Smith Jr and LaQuinton Ross, the duo who represent the Buckeye’s double-digit scorers. The issue could very well be with the trio of Aaron Craft, Sam Thompson and Scott who have labored this year with their offense, all shooting comfortably under 50 percent. Additionally, Scott and Thompson both have scuffled from beyond the arc, shooting under 30 percent. Those numbers aren’t good enough for expected impact players.
“This feels different from past slumps because of the position we were previously in. We have to be tougher physically and mentally,” Matta said after a 71-70 overtime loss to Penn State last week. “It’s been stressing us out for weeks now. I don’t like this position but it is the reality of where we’ve put ourselves. We have to come back.”
The season-long offensive woes can be partly attributed to success in the half court offense.
There have been less options this year at the rim for Scott (42.7 percent last year to 36 percent this year), Thompson (38 percent a year ago to 31.6 percent) and Ross (34.5 percent to drop to 28.8 percent this season). On two-point field goals in the half court offense, the trio of Craft, Thompson and Ross are shooting under 30 percent.
Righting the ship through the rough waters of the Big Ten schedule is not easy and a 4-5 conference start does not allow any further room for error. It has undoubtedly been a disappointment, especially when the talent level is supposedly there. During preseason in the AP Poll, the Buckeyes were No. 11 and ranked No. 10 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Fast forward to early February and they are now no longer feared.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A season ago, the Buckeyes only had two players in their recruiting class, but both were four-stars who were the top-100 recruits in the nation according to Rivals.com. In 2011, they had four players with four-star rankings on Rivals.com, so the thought process was that the Buckeyes would be a top-tier program with these players maturing and becoming upperclassmen. Instead, they’ve failed to play at that level despite the recruiting accolades.
One player who didn’t come in with much hype might be part of the solution.
Matta recently found a spark from point guard Amedeo Della Valle, who scored 11 points against Wisconsin in a much-needed win, an effort that shows that he’s become more than a spot up shooter. Della Valle will need to continue to produce along with Loving to ease the offensive burden off of Craft, Scott, Ross and Thompson until they can rediscover their stroke. Of course, this is easier said then done.
In Columbus, the expectations remain high despite this recent skid. Now they only hope they can get their scoring to match.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft and is a frequent national radio guest. Klein can be followed at @LeighAlanKlein.