Good teams don’t give away leads they earn, but Ohio State has shown an alarming habit of doing so and nearly felt the sting of that shortcoming once again Saturday before surviving a rock fight with West Virginia.
Cleveland, OH. – It’s hard to know the significance, or the shelf life, of the 78-75 overtime victory Ohio State escaped Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with Saturday night in the Legends of Basketball Showcase.
Sure, weathering the root canal that is any game against West Virginia – with Bob Huggins or without…and this one was without, given Huggs’ departure this past summer after yet another brush with the bottle – looks good on paper.
It never looks good on tape, or on TV, or in person, of course, because West Virginia is a gritty bunch that doesn’t play pretty basketball or allow others to engage in anything resembling the same.
The Mountaineers (5-8) never have and likely never will win many beauty contests based upon their style.
That’s who they were under the volcanic Huggins, and it’s who they remain, even without him haranguing them from the sideline.
These Mountaineers, now under 16-year Huggy Bear lieutenant Josh Eilert, made Ohio State sweat by erasing all but two points of a 14-point first-half deficit by the break and then eliminating an eight-point deficit over the last five minutes of regulation.
OSU survived in OT thanks to triples from Jamison Battle, Roddy Gayle and Bruce Thornton, escaping despite getting zero points off a technical foul on Eilert, while leading by five with 51.9 seconds left.
That, sadly, is who the Buckeyes are – a team that too often seems allergic to the prosperity they manufacture and then all too graciously – or foolishly – give away.
Gayle missed both technical free throws, then OSU turned the accompanying inbounds pass into a WVU breakaway dunk.
The Buckeyes’ resultant three-point lead survived, although not before they doubled down on trying even harder to hand it to their opponents. Evan Mahaffey missed both ends of a two-shot opportunity with 19.1 seconds left, after which West Virginia also missed at the line and then couldn’t track Gayle as he dribbled out the clock.
So you choose…gutty win or yet another instance or OSU showing a maddening vulnerability a team with its experience should have shed long ago?
Experience? Wait, aren’t the Buckeyes one of the youngest teams in America?
That’s what we’re told, but if you’re just waking up from the Jerry Lucas era, welcome to a time where you’re fortunate to have a two-year starter at point guard in Bruce Thornton, a shooting guard in Gayle who started late last year and all of this season, a transfer wing in Jamison Battle who’s played 115 college games and a center in Felix Okpara with now an entire calendar year as a starter under his belt.
In the vagabond, one-and-done, immediate-eligibility transfer, NIL-corrupted world of college hoops, that’s an experienced lineup, particularly when augmented by four-year backups Zed Key and Dale Bonner.
Mahaffey, who has started every game at OSU this season after not starting one in his only season at Penn State (and, no, I cannot and will not even remotely attempt to explain or justify that), gives the Buckeyes another dose of what passes for experience in college hoops these days.
In totality, that’s way too much time in the “bigs” for Ohio State to consistently engage in the kind of immature knuckle-headedness that’s become its calling card.
Up 21 in the first half at home against Minnesota – one of the worst teams in the Big Ten – OSU let the lead slip to six late in the second half.
Up 18 in the second half at Penn State, one of the other dregs of the league in a morgue of a road arena, OSU gave away all of that margin and the game in a maddening defeat pregnant with significant consequences not only in the standings, but perhaps in post-season seeding.
The Buckeyes tried to gift-wrap this one for West Virginia by gunning ridiculously quick three-point attempts after the Mountaineers switched to a zone defense brought on by widespread foul trouble over the first half’s final eight minutes.
OSU made only the last of its 13 shots over that span in the most putrid excuse for offense you will ever see.
Rarely, if ever, did the ball go into the center of the lane (textbook strategy vs. any zone) for a clean kick-out look or dump-down into the post as the defense scrambled to recover. And never once did OSU head coach Chris Holtmann attempt to abate the stench by calling a timeout.
That lunacy won’t likely play well at home Wednesday against Rutgers, and it surely won’t travel well to Indiana next Saturday.
Despite its 11-2 record, Ohio State plays with none of the consistency throughout 40 minutes that’s required for an upper-division finish in the Big Ten. Let alone what will be needed to get OSU into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament for what would be the first time in Holtmann’s seven seasons.
There’s no joy in smacking him with that statistic, because Holtmann is one of the rare Power 5 coaches whose ego and self-importance tilts toward the low end of the scale in his profession.
But it’s fair to grade him by the elite level at which he’s paid — north of $3.5 million annually — and for the resources he has at his disposal.
After all, Thad Matta was fired for missing the Tournament in back-to-back years at the end of his term in Columbus.
Over his first seven seasons, despite one year being ineligible because of NCAA violations before his arrival, Matta took OSU to the Sweet Sixteen three times and the national title game once.
That’s the standard.
That’s the grading scale.
Now we’re about to find out how it applies to Holtmann and his Buckeyes.