What is Ohio State basketball coach Chris Holtmann looking for from his team?
Let’s not specify a timeframe because whether it is Thursday night against Illinois, Sunday at No. 11 Michigan State or any other game the rest of the way, the answer is probably going to be about the same.
It’s not exactly flashy or exciting, but then that’s life at this time of the college basketball season.
“Survive and advance” is a common mantra once tournament play comes around in March, but the last stretch of the regular season brings its own challenges.
Chief among them is to keep pushing to get better despite having been playing for almost five months.
Upsets tend to happen this time of year because maintaining focus can be tough with the most exciting time of the year just around the corner.
So what does Holtmann need to see from his 16-7 team before buying the idea a dreadful 1-7 January is fully and truly behind the Buckeyes?
“The biggest thing that I think we have to continue to grow in is our understanding in the last four or five minutes what wins and what loses in terms of all those things, attention to detail, shot selection, all the things you look at,” Holtmann said Wednesday. “We’ve got to get more guys to understand that. I think we’ve grown in that, but tomorrow night in all likelihood is going to be another grind-it-out, fight-to-the-finish and we’ll see how we perform.”
So playing hard, doing the right things — oh, and cutting down turnovers.
The Buckeyes’ 14.2 turnovers per game are the most in the conference during league play, and lately the litany of miscues has required a pair of unlikely 3s by senior C.J. Jackson for Ohio State to pull out close wins against Penn State and Indiana teams looking up at them in the standings.
“We have to play better in that area, coach ‘em harder in that particular area,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to be a team that is four or five in the league, but if we’re at the bottom I don’t think if we continue to be 14th we’ll have the kind of finish that we want to have.”
After giving it away just six times in a 14-point win over Rutgers to begin the month and kick off a three-game winning streak, Ohio State committed 18 and 15 turnovers, respectively, against the Nittany Lions and Hoosiers.
That led to a pair of nail-biting wins that probably should not have been as close as they were, but they still went down in the column on the left rather than the right.
Next up is an Illinois team that hasn’t won on the road this season and is tied with Penn State for the fewest overall wins by a Big Ten team this season (nine).
Then again the ninth-place Fighting Illini might not be an easy out.
They also have won three games in a row, including a 79-74 win over Big Ten-leading Michigan State on Feb. 5.
Coach Brad Underwood’s team plays a unique style on both ends of the court, including a frenetic defense that could be exploit the Achilles heal of the Buckeyes.
“It’s not secret, right? We’re playing the team that leads the league in turnovers,” Holtmann said. “And we’re the weakest. We’re 14th, they’re No. 1, so certainly it’s a tough matchup for us in that regard.
For his part, Holtmann still sounded like a realist Wednesday, tightening the reins a bit when asked if pulling out those games against the Nittany Lions and Hoosiers showed his team is learning how to win.
“There have been some areas we’ve been better in and I think a lot of it is we’ve had guys understand what they bring to the team and what they can’t,” Holtmann said. “The other thing is we’ve made shots. When you make shots, it can cover up some issues.”
Time will tell.
No coach is going to turn down a clutch shot, but if Holtmann’s team can take care of the ball better, such heroics might not be as necessary in the future.
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