Bruce Thornton: Ohio State played more freely despite loss at Michigan
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s not exactly been a secret that something has been wrong with the Ohio State men’s basketball team for the better part of a month.
Since a blowout win at Northwestern on New Year’s Day, the Buckeyes have embedded themselves in a losing streak the likes of which the program hasn’t seen in nearly two decades. Sunday afternoon at the Crisler Center, Michigan became the latest to add to Ohio State’s litany of woes as it handed the Buckeyes a 77-69 loss, the program’s ninth in 10 games.
The Wolverines scored 22 seconds into the game and held that lead for the duration, building their lead as high as 13 points with six minutes to play and maintaining at least a two-possession lead for the final 13 minutes. On paper, it looks like all the others – another loss for the Buckeyes, and another one by single digits. Along the way, though, freshman point guard and burgeoning team captain Bruce Thornton broke out of his own personal slump with a 22-point effort.
So, to an extent, did sixth-year forward and captain Justice Sueing, whose 14 points were the most he’s totaled since he had 21 in a loss at Maryland on Jan. 8. And across the board, Thornton said he felt there was something different about how the Buckeyes played against the Wolverines.
Not necessarily better. Just different.
“I didn’t feel like we played better, but we played freely,” Thornton said. “It wasn’t so much tense (that) people were overthinking certain situations. We were just playing the game, playing the game we’ve been doing since a young age. Free-flowing.”
It wasn’t enough to snap the losing streak, and there’s no guarantee that playing with a better spirit will translate to Thursday’s home game against Northwestern. But it was an acknowledgement that, as the losses have piled up, the Buckeyes have been feeling the strain and allowing it to affect their play.
“Our plan was to be more aggressive and a lot of guys playing more free,” Sueing said. “We got the ball moving a lot better than the last few games. It’s something to build on, but we’ve got work to do.”
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It’s well past the point of the season where teams will talk about playing for moral victories, and there was none of that from coach Chris Holtmann, Sueing or Thornton after the loss to the Wolverines. This remains a team seemingly incapable of stringing enough consistent effort on both ends to finish a game with more points than its opponent, and with eight Big Ten games remaining the Buckeyes have significant work to do just to avoid a bottom-four finish and playing on the first day of the conference tournament.
Like Sueing, Thornton said this was something Ohio State could build upon.
“When you play the game like that, it’s way easier than playing it tense and frustrated,” he said. “One thing we were saying was have a free spirit. I know our situation is not really good right now, but having a free spirit, come every day and be the best player you can be every single day.”
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For Sueing, it was one of his better games in recent memory. In addition to his 14 points, he did not turn the ball over. Asked what felt different in this one, he said, “Just being more aggressive. Sometimes I get caught up in the flow of the game. Being aggressive. My teammates are helping push me through, working every day. You’ve got to work out of little slumps like that. We’re going to continue to do that individually and as a team.”
Hunter Dickinson torches Felix Okpara, Ohio State
The Buckeyes entered the Crisler Center with a chance to win their third straight game here for the first time since winning four straight from Feb. 18, 1967-Feb. 27, 1971. Last year, they beat Michigan 68-57 thanks to a 28-point outing from E.J. Liddell, but that wasn’t his most significant impact on the game. Between Liddell and fifth-year senior Kyle Young, the Buckeyes frustrated Michigan’s 7-1 center Hunter Dickinson, limiting him to 14 points on 7 of 16 shooting.
Neither were in uniform Sunday, and it showed. Dickinson put up 26 points and was 10 for 14 from two-point range, drawing eight fouls and committing just one in 36:22.
“We wanted to force him to take some tougher shots,” Sueing said. “That’s ultimately what went wrong in our game plan. A lot of his shots were easy, over the top shots. We wanted him to force him to take some tougher shots whether we were coming on the double, trying to force him to pass it out. We were successful on a couple of those rotations, but not enough for us to win tonight.”
The Buckeyes tried three defenders on Dickinson and experienced little success. Third-year center and captain Zed Key, at 6-8, 255 pounds, started on Dickinson. Then 6-11, 220-pound freshman Felix Okpara got a shot. And when Okpara picked up quick fouls, third-year forward Gene Brown III and his 6-2, 215-pound frame got a chance.
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None of it really seemed to matter, and Dickinson’s dominance of Okpara helped the Wolverines pull away early in the second half. With the freshman on the court to start the half in place of Key, Dickinson scored six straight points to turn a 48-44 lead into a 54-47 one.
Each time, he overpowered Okpara, with the final two buckets coming as Key sat at the scorers’ table to replace him. Eventually, Holtmann had to call timeout to get Okpara out of the game, but Ohio State never got closer than seven points again.
Holtmann said the challenge for Okpara in those moments can’t be answered this season.
“I’m trying to coach him to add about 10 pounds of muscle,” the coach said. “There’s some technique involved with it, but as much as anything, with his length he needs to add 10 pounds of muscle to able to defend those guys. He’s a really smart kid and a really smart player. He’s going to be able to learn post defense at a really high level.
“You add his length, his intelligence, his motor, the only thing he’s missing is strength. We need to get him stronger.”
Holtmann was asked if Brown likes the opportunity to try and use his athleticism to combat a bigger, stronger and more physical player like Dickinson.
“I don’t know if he likes to do it,” Holtmann said. “I think we’ve always, Kyle Young, E.J., they’ve always guarded guys here. They guarded him really well here last year, exceptionally well. Felix got two quick ones, so that’s why we went to that.”
Okpara was scoreless on three shots and was called for an offensive goaltending violation. Key had 6 points on 3 of 7 shooting in 24:23. Brown had 3 points in 13:41, the exact same amount of playing time as Okpara.
Last possession of first half goes awry
Although they never led, Ohio State got a 3-pointer from Sueing with 46 seconds left in the first half to pull within five points and had a chance to get closer when Dug McDaniel missed a floater in the paint with about 24 seconds remaining.
Instead, Michigan threw a zone defense at the Buckeyes and it unsettled Thornton, who gave the ball to Sueing along the right wing with a few seconds remaining. He wound up attempting a contested, leaning 3-pointer that was well wide of the mark to close the half. Had the Buckeyes gotten a better shot, it could’ve been a one-possession halftime deficit.
Thornton blamed himself for the play.
“We thought they were going to be in man, but they ended up going zone last minute,” he said. “It was too late, with 10 seconds left. With them in zone, we were trying to get a play from the coach and it was just bad timing, honestly. I didn’t really communicate as a point guard and everybody needed to be on their spot.
“I take the blame for that because that could’ve been a big key heading into the second half with a score or a better shot.”
“As much as anything we’re trying to help each other play to their strengths. Good teams, they understand each other’s strengths and play to them. They allow each other to grow into their role and what they do well. When we’re playing well offensively, we do that. I don’t know if it’s a specific guy we’re trying to attack or a specific guy we’re trying to get the ball to, we’re really trying to just play and see what the defense gives us. I think we had stretches where the ball really moved and others where it didn’t as well as it needed to, and that’s when the offense gets inefficient.” – Holtmann, asked about who they were looking to get shots for in the opening minutes of the second half
“We just need to get better. This group is very talented. We keep saying it over and over again. It’s not a lie. It’s the truth. This group is very special and we’re just short. We just keep coming up short on little things that make a big difference at the end of the day. We’re going to continue to work and make sure we get better, because that’s all we can do.” – Sueing
“Everybody can have their moment. Sean can get off. Zed can get off. Sway. Me. Everybody can have their moment. If Brice do or don’t start, I don’t feel like that’s holding us back right now. Us honed in on the defensive side of the ball, that’s holding us back. When we figure that out, I feel like we’ll be in pretty good shape.” – Thornton
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Buckeyes play more freely but still take road loss to Michigan