As it has always been coached to do, Ohio State entered the practice gym the day after Sunday’s 71-49 loss at Wisconsin ready to put the past permanently behind it.
There was an aura of acceptance for a team that realized there’s nothing that can be done to erase what has since been described by multiple players as an embarrassing performance.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta is usually all for that approach as the Buckeyes navigate their way through the ultra-competitive Big Ten schedule. Losses are bound to happen along the way, and when they do Matta typically accepts them.
This time was different.
“Coach Matta immediately said, ‘I don’t know what you guys are feeling good for – we just lost. It was embarrassing and we’re not going to let this go. We’re going to beat this drum until you guys realize this can never happen again,’ ” Lenzelle Smith Jr. recalled.
A look at the box score from the Wisconsin game would offer what seems to have become the Buckeyes’ most glaring deficiency this season. But No. 18 Ohio State’s seventh loss in eight tries this season against a ranked opponent was much more than not having a second reliable scoring option to Deshaun Thomas.
Matta saw a team roll out of bed and simply expect to earn a road conference win against a team like Wisconsin, now ranked No. 17.
And as a result, Matta then witnessed the Buckeyes get beaten handily in a game they simply couldn’t afford to lose if they planned on winning at least a share of their fourth consecutive Big Ten title.
Ohio State disregarded defensive principles that have been the staple of all of Matta’s teams, ones that have turned the Buckeyes into one of the most consistent fixtures among the top 10 the nation has seen during his nine years leading the program.
The Buckeyes, as Smith put it, abandoned ship, and Matta wasn’t ready to move on from that until his team understood the gravity of that situation.
“When thinking about it, we flat out just didn’t come to play,” sophomore forward Sam Thompson said. “We didn’t have the mind-set to go in there and get the win we needed in the Big Ten. As a result, we embarrassed our program, we embarrassed our university and we understand that’s something we can’t do and we’re going to change that.”
As the Buckeyes attempt to figure out how to stop their defensive deficiencies, the team isn’t exactly in ideal positioning in the Big Ten race. With two home games looming this week against Minnesota and Michigan State, OSU (18-7, 8-5 Big Ten) is alone in fifth place in the conference standings, three games behind conference leaders No. 1 Indiana and the No. 5 Spartans.
But winning the Big Ten is now a secondary issue for a team that once had aspirations for bigger accomplishments like a second consecutive trip to the Final Four, or perhaps even a national championship.
“Hopefully we can get back to our principles and get back to what helps us win games,” Smith said. “I don’t think it really mattered who we really played for the Wisconsin game. It was us abandoning ship. We didn’t do anything we were supposed to do.”
It wasn’t a single occurrence; it just now has become most apparent.
During the course of the past four games – three of which resulted in losses – the Buckeyes have allowed 71.2 points per game, 11.4 more than last year’s Final Four team allowed. In those games, Ohio State’s opponents have averaged 49.5 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from beyond the three-point line.
Add this year’s consistent offensive struggles to that equation, and Matta is left searching for answers. More importantly, Matta is hoping for accountability, and finding it could be the Buckeyes’ only hope for avoiding a season that now has become dangerously close to bottoming out.
“He’s angry,” Smith said of Matta. “I think any winner would be angry with the type of loss we suffered this past weekend. If you’re not angry, I would question those people who are here and part of this program. If you’re not angry about a loss, then you should not be here. I think I can speak for the team: we are embarrassed.
“We didn’t only embarrass ourselves, but we embarrassed our coaching staff, our university, our school president and our fans. We embarrassed everybody. We didn’t answer the call. It’s February and getting close to March. It is time we turn the page and become that team we know we’re capable of being.”
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