This is something even Thad Matta didn’t anticipate.
Ohio State’s men’s basketball coach went into the 2013-14 season having lost Big Ten leading scorer Deshaun Thomas to the NBA, but with the likes of junior forward LaQuinton Ross and senior guards Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft, the scoring void Thomas left could be filled.
But with his team having lost five out of the last six games, even Matta said replacing Thomas has been harder than he thought.
“No doubt about that, yeah. I think that simply from a standpoint of Deshaun was the leading scorer in the best conference in the country last year and what the public eye doesn’t see is how guys could play off of him even, and get theirs,” Matta said Friday. “You don’t have that now.”
The Buckeyes (16-5, 3-5) suffered their most recent setback Wednesday at home, a 71-70 overtime loss to Big Ten bottom-dweller Penn State (11-10, 2-6).
OSU led for a majority of that game and even held an 11-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining. But costly turnovers, missed free throws and big shots by Nittany Lion redshirt-junior guard D.J. Newbill sent the game to an extra frame, and OSU ultimately fell.
The lack of a trusted, dependable and go-to scorer like Thomas was evident — as it has been through this recent rough patch — and helped lead to the most frustrating loss of the season to date.
With seven juniors and two seniors on the roster, it could be believed that leadership should not be an issue. But lately, the Buckeyes seem to lack the punch late in games to ice victories.
“You know these guys, they want to win. As I’ve said this, we haven’t gone into a game and completely taken ourselves out at the beginning. We’re ready to play, we’re fighting. I mean, to me, if there was a leadership element I guess it would be kind of down the last 10 minutes of games right now is where we’re stumbling in terms of making the plays that we need to win the game,” Matta said. “Is that leadership? I don’t know. I think it’s more of saying, ‘Hey, give me the ball I’m going to make the play.’”
The loss to the Nittany Lions — the first time OSU lost to Penn State since Matta’s been head coach — prompted a players-only meeting Wednesday, junior guard Shannon Scott said.
“We just sat down and talked about what’s going on with the team and how we can change the season around,” Scott said. “We all feel like brothers with each other. We don’t talk badly about each other, nothing like that. We all feel like we’re one big family … We know that some of the fans might not be on our side right now, but we’re not going to let that get to us. We know who we’re playing for and why we’re playing this game that we love. So if we all stick together we’re going to be all right.”
The No. 24 Buckeyes — who are set to travel to No. 14 Wisconsin (17-4, 4-4) Saturday — likely will fall from the top 25 rankings after the home loss to Penn State, and Scott went as far to say the team is not deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid right now.
“We know we’re not an NCAA team right now — a tournament team,” Scott said. “We’re just playing bad ball. So I think us meeting right now is a great thing for us. Out of all the games that we lost, we were in a situation to win at the end of the games, except maybe one of the games. So us knowing that we can play better ball but that the year is not over though. We know we can turn it around still.”
Turning it around will be no easy task, but OSU’s first chance to start making the plays it needs to put games away late and turn the season around is at noon Saturday in Madison, Wis. That’s where the Badgers stomped Buckeyes by 22 points last year.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to win basketball games, some greater than others,” Matta said. “But with that said I think we gotta lock in, and we gotta man-up towards the end of the game.”