Ohio State was more competitive than it has been recently, but the outcome was all too familiar Friday at Iowa in another road failure that shovels more dirt on its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Iowa City, IA. – The problem with failing to win a road game in 15 tries over 14 months, since the night Ohio State lost to Georgia in a shank-off field goal finish in the 2023 College Football Playoff, is that such prolonged failures suck any benefit of the doubt from an embattled program and its head coach.
Hence, while OSU coach Chris Holtmann was quick to laud his team for the good things it accomplished in a 79-77 loss Friday at Iowa, the takeaway of a frustrated fan base will be one thing Holtmann did and one thing the Buckeyes did not.
Those two failures – a head-scratching play call from Holtmann with Ohio State down a single point in the final 30 seconds, and OSU’s game-long failure to defend in transition – inflicted a fourth straight defeat and seventh loss in eight games that steepens the hill separating this team from a second straight season without reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Trailing, 74-73, with 38.6 seconds left, Ohio State inbounded in the backcourt with no Iowa pressure and employed a curious strategy to seek the lead.
Point guard Bruce Thornton, having offered his customary performance heavy on assists (4) and light on turnovers (0), quickly gave up possession to Roddy Gayle Jr., who drove across midcourt and passed to center Felix Okpara.
Okpara took the pass with his back to the basket, 20 feet from the hoop, and began looking to the far wing for Gayle, whom OSU hoped to free with a screen.
The Buckeyes’ big man took a quick dribble, steadied the ball in his hands for a fractional second, then dribbled again, thus committing a double-dribble violation that handed control back to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes never ceded that advantage, hitting back-to-back two-shot free throws and subsequently and immediately fouling OSU before it could attempt to tie with a three-point attempt either time.
Thornton made both ends of a one-and-one the first time, but backup guard Dale Bonner missed the front end of a two-shot chance with 8.3 seconds left and and an intentional missed free throw from Bonner with OSU down two and 4.5 left didn’t allow for enough time to track the loose-ball rebound.
“Felix just bobbled the ball there,” Holtmann said. “We actually had the matchup we really liked there in that situation. Those things happen. I thought overall, our guys performed well. I thought they performed well. We still have to sustain an effort for longer on the defensive end. We have to do that. We have to do that every time out. That’s the reality.”
Yes, it is the reality in a Big Ten Conference where the distinction between teams not named Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois requires poise under pressure if you want to be something other than a well-funded underachiever.
Prescient scouting and competent execution also helps, which makes this a good time to mention that Iowa rang up an astounding 17-0 advantage in transition points.
Losing that battle by that margin against Iowa, a team that has finished first or second in the league in offense and last or next-to-last in the league in defense each of the last three seasons – is contemptibly inexcusable.
The Hawkeyes under volcanic head coach Fran McCaffery have always been able to score and have always been invitingly easy to score upon, such is their preoccupation with getting down court quickly, while being hauntingly inept at getting back on defense.
“A couple of times we were disorganized in transition,” Holtmann said. “I thought overall, at the end of the day, that’s probably what got us, just the inability to get stops. A couple of those were after makes. That’s the disappointing thing. That’s something we have to do better.”
Iowa scored on 15 of its final 18 possessions over the last 10:39 to erase what had been a 54-51 deficit.
Ohio State (13-9, 3-8) therefore sank another game under .500 in the league and now must finish 7-2 in its final nine games to break even and give Holtmann a reason beyond a stomach-churning $15 million buyout to be allowed back next year.
Be clear, there’s no joy in holding the nice-guy coach’s feet to the fire. He did a terrific job his first two seasons, getting into the NCAA and winning an opening game each time with the flawed and limited roster he inherited.
Covid cancelled the event his third year when Holtmann had his team playing well in March.
Since then, it’s been a series of first- and second-round exits.
Put simply and plainly, seven seasons with the resources Holtmann has at his disposal is more than enough time to expect more than he’s delivered.
Holtmann’s overwhelming failure has been his flawed roster construction over a changing era of college hoops in which top talent can now be attracted with either tons of cash, the promise of playing time, or both.
Every top team in the Big Ten has an impact transfer, and while Jamison Battle has been a scoring boost for the Buckeyes, he’s not the well-rounded threat of Rienk Mast at Nebraska, Lance Smith at Purdue, A.J. Storr at Wisconsin or Marcus Domask at Illinois.
Holtmann never fails to mention the youth of his team as it struggles to make winning plays at winning times, but that fault lies with his own decision to build a roster conventionally via high school recruits he hopes to develop.
Some of those choices seem fine, as with Thornton and Gayle, but some of them are eye-poppingly dumb, as with taking both Bowen Hardman and Kalen Etzler under the mistaken notion that if either sat and watched long enough one or the other would magically morph into Jon Diebler.
Successful coaches who’ve adjusted to modern college roster construction don’t make those mistakes, and they don’t waste the entire non-league portion of the schedule trying to squeeze wins out of a limited talent like Penn State transfer Evan Mahaffey while a recruit like reigning Ohio Mr. Basketball Devin Royal sits, watches and never gets the valuable minutes he needs to develop and grow ready for Big Ten play.
Holtmann’s lauded Top Five recruiting class of Royal, Scotty Middleton, Taison Chatman and Austin Parks is essentially giving him nothing, even though Royal had nine points against the Hawkeyes with Middleton out injured.
Other than Battle, the transfer class of Mahaffey – who has mind-numbingly started every game – and Bonner is giving OSU about as much as last season’s rag-tag bunch of Ike Likekele, Sean McNeil and Tanner Holden.
If you stuck around for the game following OSU-Iowa on FS1 last night, you saw Butler upset No. 13 Creighton on the road, 99-98
Butler’s coach, Thad Matta – who used to construct his roster like Holtmann while leading OSU to five Sweet Sixteens, two Final Fours, one Elite Eight and one national runner-up finish – has his Bulldogs above .500 in the Big East and firmly in NCAA contention with just three players back from last season and seven of his top eight scorers having transferred into the program this year.