At first, it was easy to push Ohio State’s four-game losing streak under the rug like a lump of dust.
The Buckeyes beat Illinois, 62-55, Jan. 23 to get a taste of winning back in their mouths, but after yet another loss — a 71-70 overtime setback to Penn State (11-10, 2-6) Wednesday — a big question sits in their minds. What is missing from this team?
“Toughness. Character. Camaraderie. Leadership,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said after the loss. “And I take full responsibility for that. I gotta get back to what we need and pick guys up and try to do my best, even better job to try and carry this team this year as a senior.”
Smith Jr. finished with 15 points for the Buckeyes (16-5, 3-5), but missed a free throw in the final 30 seconds of regulation and another in overtime, helping let a win to slip through his team’s fingers.
A disappointed, disheveled and seemingly lost Smith Jr. sat next to fellow senior guard Aaron Craft during the postgame news conference, both trying to pinpoint where things went wrong.
“This is, this, this is the … I can’t even talk,” Smith Jr. said, his voice cracking as he fended off tears. “This game, this hurts the most out of every game since I’ve been at Ohio State.”
“We weren’t the tougher basketball team. We have the ball, chance to go up three, and we turn the ball over,” Craft said. “They go down, they got guys that wanna make plays, and they did it.
“So, hats off to them. They’re excited, they did it, they did what they needed to do.”
Smith Jr., staring off into space as reporters asked him questions, shook his head continuously as he spoke about the mood of the locker room.
“We beat Illinois and everything was back to normal, everybody was happy. We act like we didn’t just lose four games in a row,” Smith Jr. said. “As a team, I don’t think we care enough.
“These losses don’t hurt enough — this is embarrassing. Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now.”
OSU has dealt with rough stretches early in the season before, dropping three out of four games during a stretch in February 2013 and then three of five through a period in February 2012. But in both of those seasons, the Buckeyes were able to bounce back to make a tournament run, advancing to the Elite Eight last season and the Final Four the year before that.
But this time around, it feels different.
“It does (feel different) because of the position we were in to win the basketball game,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “This was more than a winnable basketball game … but it just, it’s one of those things we got to, we gotta be a tougher physically and tougher mentally basketball team.”
The five losses in six games likely will drop the No. 24 Buckeyes out of the top 25 rankings when they are announced early next week, and Wednesday proved that maybe they don’t deserve to be there.
“Prior to (the Illinois) game, we lost everything. Our toughness, our team chemistry, our heads were down,” Smith Jr. said. “Once we got one win, we felt like we were winners again and reality, we lost four games and just ‘cause you win one it doesn’t … In this league, if you don’t come ready to play every night you’re going to lose as you see tonight. Their second win? Top 25 teams at home, don’t lose these games. And we lost.”
The free fall of a program that was once ranked No. 3 in the country after ripping off 15 straight wins to open the season is evident, and even if Nittany Lion redshirt-junior guard D.J. Newbill’s jumper over Craft with 1.9 seconds left didn’t go through the net to finish off OSU, the team’s problems were still evident after it blew an 11-point lead with 7:58 left in regulation.
“Obviously, I don’t like the position we’re in, but it’s the reality of it,” Matta said. “With what we put ourselves in, the position we’ve put ourselves in and we’ve got to fight our way out of this.”
Things are not likely to get any easier for the Buckeyes as they continue to make their way through the Big Ten conference schedule. Up next, OSU is set to travel to No. 14 Wisconsin (17-4, 4-4) Saturday. Tipoff is slated for noon, as the Buckeyes look to get things back to normal in what are Smith Jr.’s and Craft’s final games at OSU.
“Definitely my senior year, this is not what I had in mind. But I’ll never give up on my team, and I know that when we get a cause and we get hungry for wins, and we stick together and we become a team again, I’ll take us against anybody in the country,” Smith Jr. said. “But right now we gotta find what we’re missing.”
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