Shots not falling for Ohio State

MINNEAPOLIS -- After No. 11 Ohio State lost 63-53 to an unranked Minnesota team on the road and suffered its first three-game losing streak since 2009, Thad Matta did what all confused men do.

He stroked his chin.

He shook his head.

He rubbed his temples.

He drifted.

He paused mid-sentence.

"It just … I don’t know," he told reporters Thursday night.

Ohio State’s offense has challenges, challenges that have even perplexed a seasoned coach such as Matta. Those challenges arose the day Deshaun Thomas turned pro.

Thomas was a polarizing figure throughout his collegiate career. Even when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him last summer in the second round, there were still questions about the tweener’s ability to compete at the next level.

He faced the same scrutiny as the No. 2 scorer in the Big Ten last season (19.7 PPG) behind Wooden Award winner Trey Burke. Thomas could be sporadic and frustrating, and his defensive inconsistency drew criticism during his tenure in Columbus, Ohio.

But he scored -- inside and outside. If Ohio State needed a bucket, Thomas found a way. He was a perplexing matchup for most players at this level. The 6-foot-7 combo forward could exploit smaller wings in the post. He’d also force big men to guard him outside the paint, where they were uncomfortable, due to his range.

On Tuesday, Ohio State -- lacking that elite scoring threat, although LaQuinton Ross was impressive in spurts during his 22-point effort -- needed someone to churn its lumpy offense.

Its defense, usually strong under Matta, was an early anchor. The Buckeyes forced eight turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game. At one point, Minnesota had a 1-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Still, Ohio State only held an 11-10 lead after starting the game by missing 11 of its first 14 shots.

"The shots we felt we were going to get, we got," Matta said. "They, for whatever reason, weren’t going down."

All season, the elephant in the room has been Ohio State’s mediocre offense.

If Ohio State can’t score more consistently and efficiently, how can it win the Big Ten? How can it make a run at the crown? How will it advance in March?

Last season’s squad finished 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. This season’s team is 70th in the same category.

Ohio State’s effort against the Golden Gophers should be a scary exhibit for the program’s supporters.

Ohio State’s fall from the third-ranked team in America to a 2-3 Big Ten team began modestly. The Buckeyes ran through their first 15 games, a slate that included wins over Marquette and Notre Dame. In hindsight those wins weren't special but probably the greatest accomplishments on their flimsy résumé.

But then Michigan State dominated them until the final minutes, when a furious rally pushed the game into overtime before the Buckeyes lost. Iowa was just too big and deep when they beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday.

Against the Gophers, Ohio State’s offense was disastrous in a game that Big Ten contenders win.

The Buckeyes had chances to pull away in the first half, but they couldn’t find the rim. They committed a turnover (13 total) on five consecutive possessions during a stretch in the second half.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. (3-for-9) missed a dunk. Amir Williams hit the bottom of the backboard on another attempt. Aaron Craft was left alone on the perimeter to miss 3-pointers. Ross went 3-for-8 after halftime.

That wasn't the only problem. Ohio State is usually an elite defensive squad. Its 18 forced turnovers were proof of that, although Minnesota’s 51 percent shooting percentage proved costly.

The Buckeyes were exposed inside by Elliott Eliason (12 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks) in Richard Pitino’s most impressive victory in his first season as head coach.

But Ohio State’s 7-for-22 shooting in the second half ultimately cost it.

The Buckeyes can score, as their 76.0 points per game average suggests, but it’s their inconsistency and limits that create problems. Plus, they’re mishandling the ball (84th in offensive turnover rate, per Ken Pomeroy).

The Buckeyes will continue to struggle against the Big Ten's elite if their offense sputters. And, as Thursday showed, they won’t beat the gritty second-tier teams in the league without some offensive punch.

Ohio State needs quality wins, but they need a go-to guy to help get those wins.

"I think my two years here, this team has always had a security blanket," Ross said. "Last year, it was [Thomas]. The year before that, it was [Jared Sullinger].

It’s clearly different this season.

But they need someone to be consistently assertive and effective -- be it Smith, Ross, or Craft.

On Thursday night in Minneapolis, they all tried to pull Ohio State out of that offensive pit -- and failed.

"We gotta look at reality," Matta said. "As a team, this is where we are. We’ll figure that out on the way home tonight. … People don’t like reality very often."

After Thursday, the reality is that the Buckeyes won’t be Big Ten contenders unless they figure out their offensive flaws. And they need to do that soon.