The midpoint of a season is no time to write a eulogy. With 10 more Big Ten games on the schedule and at least one guaranteed game in the conference tournament, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann was in no mood Monday to speak in absolutes about what the 2022-23 Buckeyes will or won’t be remembered for.
Not when there’s still so much basketball to be played and a focus on trying to turn around what has otherwise been the most challenging month of Holtmann’s nine seasons at the high-major level.
“I don’t want to make too many statements about the season when we have (at least) 11 games left,” he said. “Let the story be written. Let’s see how much better we can get and grow and how much better we can improve. That’s our focus right now. I certainly wouldn’t want to do an autopsy of the season with 11 games to go.”
What’s happened of late hasn’t been pretty. With a 16-point loss at Indiana on Saturday night, Ohio State will host Wisconsin on Thursday night in search of putting a stretch of seven losses in eight games in the rearview mirror. The Badgers have been similarly slumping, having lost six of seven, but Ohio State’s focus is pointed inward right now.
After the loss to the Hoosiers, captain Zed Key and senior guard and West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil both acknowledged that their efforts to provide more leadership remain works in progress. McNeil spoke of leaning on his teammates while Key said he has daily conversations with Holtmann about what he can do to help the team win.
“That’s basically what I do,” Key said. “If he needs me to sit down and clap harder, I’ll do that. At this point, I’m just trying to get a win and get this thing back on track.”
Turbulence was expected when Ohio State entered the season with a revamped roster highlighted by four freshmen all playing important roles. But when the Buckeyes easily handled Northwestern on New Year’s Day – a Wildcats team that goes to Iowa on Tuesday with a 15-5 overall record and 6-3 in Big Ten play – it moved them to 10-3 overall and 2-0 in the league.
Ohio State basketball has struggled after New Year’s Day win
It’s been a steady free-fall from there. After becoming the first team in program history to lose five straight games all by single digits, Ohio State handed Iowa a 16-point defeat on Jan. 21 but has followed that with decisive losses at Illinois and Indiana. A top-25 team to start the calendar year, the Buckeyes have played their way to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble as February looms.
Throughout, the Buckeyes have repeated a belief that they’re not far off from flipping things around. Holtmann said Monday the team’s lingering issues have been rebounding, ball movement and improved overall defensive effort in all phases. The Buckeyes are 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (70.7 points allowed per game), 12th in rebounding defense (36.8 allowed per game) and ninth in rebounding margin (minus-1.2 per game).
They are dead last in assists per game (10.1) and in defensive rebounding, having rebounded only 69.1% of their opponents’ misses.
Sporadic improvement has been seen, but it hasn’t consistently been enough to turn things around. At the halfway point, Ohio State is 12th in the Big Ten standings. Since the league expanded to 12 teams in 2011, the Buckeyes have never finished lower than 11th.
“It’s hard not to be disappointed with the first 10 games of league play,” Holtmann said. “Our challenge is, let’s finish this in a way we feel good about. What specially that looks like, I’m not really interested in getting into. What I do want to focus on is focusing in those specific areas (we’ve discussed).”
At the midpoint of Big Ten play, there’s still time to salvage the season. Six of the remaining games will be played at Value City Arena, and despite the stumbles of the last month Ohio State is projected to win seven of its final 10 games according to KenPom.com.
Why Ohio State is still confident for rest of basketball season
The problem is that envisioning such a finish is a challenge at best given how January has progressed. Both Key and McNeil spent part of their post-Indiana press conference expressing their confidence that better basketball is just ahead and that these issues are easily correctable.
What gives them that confidence?
“I know my guys,” Key said. “We’re a very talented team. I’ve been seeing it since the summer when everyone got here. I know we’re a really talented team. We’re just in a little funk right now. People say, ‘You look worried.’ I’m not worried. We’ll be fine. We’ll get out of this.”
They have half a Big Ten season remaining to prove it.