Rapp Around: ‘I Think We’re Fine’

By Jeff Rapp, February 18th, 2018

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As they tear down the extraneous chairs and carpets at the Crisler Center to pack up a home season at the University of Michigan on Feb. 18, it seems much has come clear.

The Wolverines, who just put together a 74-62 win over rival Ohio State before a raucous sellout crowd of 12,707, are feeling good about themselves, Michigan State is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten, and pitiful Ohio State is trending way downward – the way a pretender falls out of a championship race.

Maybe all of those things are true and evident. Then again, maybe not.

The Buckeyes, who just tumbled to 22-7 and 13-3 in the Big Ten, got in their own way again a few days after being blasted out of Bryce Jordan Center in an embarrassing 79-56 loss at Penn State.

In a matter of days, they went from a darling national story and a team alone atop a power conference to a free-falling spectacle. You can take that No. 8 ranking away from Chris Holtmann’s team and put a 16 there. You can rip away that No. 4 projected seed in the NCAA Tournament and replace it with a 6 and no one would blink.

The Buckeyes were feel-good for a while but just aren’t ready to be a compelling contestant during March Madness, it appears. We know this because it’s mid-February and everything that needs to be revealed has been revealed, right?

Actually, no.

We fall into this trap every year, as a matter of fact. Believe it or not, there is still more to learn – and this Ohio State team may still surprise.

Yes, it’s now fairly unlikely that the Buckeyes will be able to even get a piece of the regular-season Big Ten title thanks to the recent unpleasantries and MSU’s stunning comeback at Northwestern yesterday.

However, Sparty (26-3, 14-2) did fall into a 43-16 hole at NU and was helped greatly by an epic Wildcats collapse. Second-ranked Michigan State also has to close the season at Wisconsin, where Purdue lost recently.

Also, it should be noted that many other well-ranked teams have lost in the past week – seven of the top 11 teams at last look. This NCAA tourney is going to be the most wide-open in recent memory.

The Buckeyes host Rutgers on Tuesday on what will be Senior Night for Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams – and could also be the wave goodbye to star forward Keita Bates-Diop. That will be followed by a trip to Indiana on Friday.

There are still a couple opportunities for the Buckeyes to right the ship before the postseason, and OSU still figures to have a decent chance to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament with a No. 2 or 3 seed, which would mean a double-bye and an avoidance of being on MSU’s side of the bracket.

More importantly, OSU is a pretty good neutral-site team that understands how to defend, grind and score just enough to advance in a tournament-type setting.

So what went so drastically wrong at Penn State and Michigan?

Michigan turned out the lights on visiting OSU on Senior Day.

Well, too offer a simplistic answer, the Buckeyes played a little too spooked the last two times out. Tate referenced a lack of hunger, but that’s easy for him to say on a day when he scored 20 points and ripped down a career-high 15 rebounds almost entirely on hustle and desire. Nobody was matching what he was doing, so like you and I he was left to wonder where his teammates’ heads were.

“I thought he did the best job of playing through their physicality,” Holtmann said. “He was able to get to some of his spots and play with strength and force. I was really proud of him.”

Bates-Diop certainly ended up with respectable numbers as well with 17 points and seven rebounds, but he once again struggled to deal with double teams and also committed a few costly turnovers, including one in the opening minute of the second half when he was simply trying to enter the ball into the post and lost the handle.

“I’ve just got to find a way to get off people’s bodies and get open somehow,” he lamented afterward. “It’s difficult. They’re good defenders. They scout us, obviously, they know our plays, so I can’t just walk through. I’ve got to find a more difficult way to get there.”

Bates-Diop ended up just 5 of 17 from the floor with four miscues. He also was only 4 of 8 from the free-throw line. But he wasn’t alone in his shortcomings.

As a team, the Buckeyes were 9 of 19 there and missed several front ends of one-and-ones. They also committed an atrocious 22 turnovers and missed several layups, putbacks and open shots.

Williams fouled out in his second game back from suspension. Micah Potter didn’t play despite being healthy. Reserve guards Musa Jallow and Andrew Dakich didn’t score.

And C.J. Jackson had perhaps his worst Big Ten game as a Buckeye. Officially, he was 1 for 5 with three turnovers but he made several other mistakes that led to OSU woe.

For example, OSU trailed just 55-52 with 7:53 remaining and had a chance to cut it to one when Andre Wesson rebounded a missed three by UM senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, but Dakich missed a layup at the other end of the court.

Moments later, Lima, Ohio, product Zavier Simpson made a layup and Jordan Poole hit one of his four triples to provide the Wolverines a 60-52 advantage with 6:27 to go.

Not much went right after that and Michigan’s lead swelled to 15 points, 72-57, when Abdur-Rahkman, who led the team with 17 points, made two free throws at 1:02.

All of those bad signs came on the heels of the ugliness at Penn State, leading to some hand-wringing in Buckeyeland.

“They were kind of two totally different games in terms of the teams played but the concepts were still the same,” Bates-Diop said. “We’ve got to be more locked in and focused on the details.

“Sometimes it takes us a little too long to figure it out and the game is out of hand.”

Added Tate, “I think we fought but we have a little more to us. I know we do. The tougher team won tonight and we’ve got to pay attention to detail.”

The Buckeyes need to tap into their team unity now more than ever.

The Buckeyes held No. 22 Michigan (22-7, 11-5) slightly under 50 percent, which is usually the calling card for success, but the Buckeyes dipped to 21-4 in such contests because of their own blunderous mistakes.

And that’s the dichotomy of the situation.

The errors are glaring and aren’t arriving at an opportune time to say to the least. However, because much of Ohio State’s recent troubles appear self-inflicted and only one true road game remains, there is reasonable hope that Holtmann’s crew can get this straightened out.

“I don’t think there’s any need to freak out,” Tate said. “We’re still 13-3 in the Big Ten, and that’s saying something – and we’ve still got two more ahead.”

Holtmann then seemed to provide some comfort when he added, “I think we’re fine. We haven’t had a whole lot of (adversity) through the Big Ten season. This is what we signed up for. If this beats us down, shame on us.”

It’s not quite March yet and the Buckeyes still have a little time to make their first-year coach seem prophetic.