- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's a testament to the program Thad Matta has built that after three losses in its last five games — all three of which came to top-25 teams, one of which came on the road — that we would even think of broaching the above question. Another testament to Matta's program: After Wisconsin held off the Buckeyes in Columbus Sunday, they, along with coach Bo Ryan, celebrated the 63-60 win as if it had earned them a one-way ticket to the Final Four. (And hilariously so.)
In other words: Let's keep some perspective here. Perspective is good. Perspective is important. Ohio State is still one of the nation's most talented teams, with one of the nation's best defenses, playing in the nation's best basketball conference, losing to some of the nation's best 15 or 20 teams. And now, with all those contextual caveats out of the way, I'll ask again:
What happened to Ohio State?
It's clear that something is wrong. We can start with the frustrations and recriminations surrounding this team's chemistry: After Sunday's loss, Matta revealed that he had to throw his team out of Saturday's practice because it wasn't focused and ready for Sunday's game. Matta called out his team "maybe as much as he ever has in his eight years in Columbus," the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's Doug Lesmerises wrote Monday:
"I think at times they don't understand what I see in our approach," Matta said. "As we said, guys have got to look themselves in the mirror and come back and be ready to go."
Asked if it was a function of the immaturity of his young team, which includes four sophomores and a senior in the starting lineup and five freshmen, two sophomores and junior on the bench, Matta said, "No, because my freshmen always come to practice. They do a great job. Honestly, I don't know the answer."
This is hardly encouraging stuff. Nor is senior guard William Buford's assessment: "It's real concerning," Buford told the Plain-Dealer. "We should be together by now." When you've got your coach and senior leader talking like that, and you've got Deshaun Thomas fending off haters on Twitter, it's clear this team is missing some key intangible ingredients. Basketball is a game of chemistry. The Buckeyes appear to be missing that indefinable elixir -- and this late in the season calendar, no less — is certainly troubling in and of itself.
But I'd wager that whatever chemistry issues Ohio State is having would probably vanish pretty quickly if the Buckeyes hadn't lost three out of their last five. In other words, "lack of chemistry" isn't a catch-all root cause. "Lack of overpowering offense" seems much closer to the truth.
Ohio State offensive points per possession, last three losses:
vs. Michigan State: 0.75 ppp
at Michigan: 0.89 ppp
vs. Wisconsin: 1.0 ppp
The Wisconsin game is a bit of an outlier, because — and maybe this is where the chemistry thing comes in — the Buckeyes allowed Wisconsin to score 1.05 points per trip. That's hardly overwhelming, but the Buckeyes have found solace in their defense all season: They've allowed just four Big Ten opponents to break the one-point-per-possession barrier and have, for much of this season, had the best adjusted efficiency defense in both the Big Ten and in the country. That is no longer the case Monday, as Michigan State's brilliant defense overtook Ohio State in conference defensive efficiency standings, but the point remains: Ohio State has for most of the season been one of nation's best defensive teams, if not the best. When the Buckeyes have struggled, especially lately, it's because their offense has failed to maintain the pace.
This is actually pretty easy to explain: The Buckeyes badly miss Jon Diebler, because Jon Diebler never missed.
(See what I did there? Right. Just making sure.)
Remember last year's Buckeyes? The 2011 edition had much of the same personnel as this year's group, with one exception: The 2011 team had Diebler, who ended the season as the nation's overall leader in offensive rate (140.6, which is ridiculous) and true shooting percentage (72.6 percent, also ridiculous) with the No. 2 effective field goal percentage in the country (70.6 percent, which, again, you get the idea). Diebler's all-court marksmanship was indispensable, not just because it's always good to have a guy who makes 50.2 percent of his 3s (duh), but because the tandem of Jared Sullinger's dominant low-post game and Diebler's presence on the wing forced opponents to make a choice: Double Sully and leave Diebler open, or stay on Dieber, rotate with help, and/or let Sullinger go to work on the low block. The presence of senior forward David Lighty — a 42 percent 3-point shooter in his own right, and one of the nation's best defenders and glue guys — shouldn't be discounted here, either, because Lighty, alongside Diebler and Buford, gave Sullinger a host of kickout options to keep defenses honest.
As a result, Ohio State led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage last season (42.3 percent). The Buckeyes' 3s accounted for 32.7 percent of their total field goals, and they racked up an assist on 55.1 percent of their made buckets. That killer one-in, four-out lineup was devastating: It lit up opposing defenses to the tune of a 125.6 adjusted efficiency mark (per Pomeroy) the nation's highest in 2011, and until Kentucky forward Josh Harrelson played one of the games of his life against Sullinger in Kentucky's Sweet 16 win, the Buckeyes' well-oiled machine looked every bit the type capable of steamrolling to a national title.
In 2012, in the immortal words of Christopher Wallace, things done changed. Ohio State's assists-to-makes ratio is down to 55.1 percent. It is shooting threes just 26 percent of the time. And, most important, those threes don't drop: The 2012 Buckeyes are shooting 33.3 percent from long range. They've gone from the nation's leader in 3-point FG percentage to, as of Monday, No. 218.
The inside-out attack that made 2011's team so very lethal is, for all intents and purposes, gone. Diebler's loss is the main reason, and Lighty's is next in line, but it certainly hasn't helped that Buford, a 44 percent 3-point shooter in 2011, is making just 37.9 percent in 2012. Thomas (34 percent) and freshman point guard Aaron Craft (35 percent) haven't picked up the slack. In fact, the team's leader in 3-point FG percentage is — believe it or not — Sullinger, who has made 11-of-28 from 3, or 39.3 percent, this season.
If you needed one quick, easily digestible reason why Ohio State's offense has lagged in 2011, well, there you go: The man whose low-post game keyed countless open threes in 2011 is currently the Buckeyes' best bet to make a long-range shot.
Buford's struggles have been a main focus all season for Ohio State fans, and rightfully so: The guard has been inconsistent all year, and some of his worst nights in the past few weeks have coincided with the Buckeyes' losses. Against Michigan State, Buford went 2-of-12 from the field. Against Michigan, he was 3-of-12. On Sunday, he went 4-of-11. Buford entered this season with the opportunity to be Ohio State's go-to scorer, to carry much of the offensive load on the perimeter, to be a slightly more versatile, slightly less accurate, but altogether more creative version of the Diebler-Lighty combo used to such great effect in 2011. Things haven't gone according to plan.
All of which is a long, statistically peppered way of saying this: The Buckeyes appear to have chemistry issues, but which came first? The lackluster offense, or the lackluster chemistry? I'll take offense. The Buckeyes need to come together off the court, and soon. But more crucial is their need for effective, efficient scoring without 3s.
That team is gone now. (Jon Diebler isn't walking through that door.) In its place is a squad with an even better defense, but one that simply can't score in the same ways it did in 2011. This team isn't suddenly going to get hot. Smart opponents like Michigan State and Michigan and Wisconsin have watched the tape, looked at the numbers you just read, realized as much, and begun scouting and game-planning OSU accordingly. The jig is up; the word is out. Sink in on Sullinger. This team can't shoot.
The good news? OSU's defense is still, you know, really good. The bad news? If the Buckeyes don't find a way to get easier baskets, their chances of fulfilling the dream Sullinger laid out when he returned to Columbus as a sophomore — the 2012 national title — only look less likely.
It's Feb. 27. Selection Sunday is in two weeks. The Buckeyes have that much time to figure out whatever chemistry problems are infecting their practices. But they'd be just as well-served by figuring out how to score consistently with this offense.
That's the real issue here. And it isn't nearly as easy to fix.