Just when it seemed that Ohio State had turned a corner and started to find its stride, the Buckeyes reverted to their Jekyll and Hyde routine, having one really bad week. A tough road loss in West Lafayette against a hot Purdue team came just hours after it was learned that sophomore Marc Loving, the team's second-leading scorer, had indefinitely "lost the privilege to wear the scarlet and grey."
While head coach Thad Matta has not gone in to specifics, other than to say that Loving's suspension had been handed down by the athletic department for an as-yet determined amount of time, the loss of the Big Ten's leading three-point shooter is a major setback. One only had to watch the Boilermakers pack the paint, daring Ohio State to shoot over the top or to drive the lane with an invitation to the A.J. Hammons block party, to understand the impact of Loving's absence.
"Definitely, if we had Marc, it would have been a different outcome, I imagine," freshman D'Angelo Russell said after Wednesday's game. "He would have given us 10 or 12 points."
The Buckeyes shot just 4-15 (26.7 percent) from beyond the arc in Mackey Arena, and had nine shots blocked. Seven of those blocks came from Hammons.
"Not having Marc on the court with us we're a different team, but it shouldn't have affected the way we played as a team," senior Shannon Scott said. "We played hard that game, but we didn't play too smart. We should have been able just to bounce back and take advantage of what we had on the court at the time. We didn't do that and that's bad on our part."
If there is any silver lining for Ohio State right now, it's that the coming week features matchups against two of the three worst teams in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes travel to the east coast to play Rutgers on Sunday and host Penn State on Wednesday. The Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions have a combined record of 5-17 in conference play, and provide an opportunity for Matta's squad to figure things out on the fly a little easier than if Wisconsin was sitting on the opposing bench.
"It's something that none of us wants to deal with," Matta said of Loving's suspension. "But I think you look at it like an injury. It's something where you've got to look at the situation and say we've got to move forward and carry out the task of playing our best basketball."
For the Buckeyes to get back to their winning ways, a pair of freshmen will need to step up in Loving's stead. Both Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop figure to see expanded minutes, and both need to step up their games. Williams, who averages 6.9 points per game and 38 percent three-point shooting this season, played 17 minutes against Purdue, contributing 5 points and 4 rebounds.
"In the first half the other night, Kam was just out there," Matta said. "We talked at halftime and said ‘Hey, you've got to create, you've got to find opportunities to shoot the basketball.'"
Bates-Diop, who at a lanky 6'7" is perhaps the most physically similar Buckeye to Loving, has played more than 5 minutes in just one conference game and has not scored a single point in his last five appearances.
"I think the other guy we need to play at a high level is Keita," Matta said. "He's been very, very good in practice the last couple days and we're pushing him to just say, ‘Hey, you've got to take the bull by the horns. Get out of the backseat and into the front seat and make things happen.' With that said, hopefully he is another guy along with Kam that can stretch the defense."
KBD, as Buckeye fans call him, came to Ohio State highly-touted as a player who could slash to the basket, knock down spot-up threes, and use his length on the glass. The coming week could provide a perfect opportunity for him to flash that potential and earn more playing time down the home stretch of the regular season.
"I've been on Keita all year to be more aggressive," Matta said. "I want him to shoot the basketball. He's a shooter. I brought him here to shoot, and I think sometimes he's out there trying to sort of feel his way. We need him to be a little bit more aggressive in terms of his approach."
The Buckeyes finish the week on Saturday with a noon tip-off in East Lansing against Michigan State, a place historically difficult for opposing teams to pull out victories (unless the team is Illinois, apparently). Ohio State then has an eight-day layoff before its next game, the following Sunday in Ann Arbor. Hitting that little hiatus with momentum is crucial if the Buckeyes hope to finish the regular season strong and secure a coveted double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.
The first step in grabbing that momentum is in Piscataway. The road has proven a tough place for any team to get a win in conference play. Ohio State will need to be on its game to avoid an upset.
"We understand we have to be 10 points better when we are on the road just because we are playing a team at their home place," Scott said on Saturday.
Without Loving and his nearly 12 points a night, the Buckeyes may need to be 20 points better.