COLUMBUS, Ohio - Who, exactly, are these guys?
The Ohio State Buckeyes themselves are starting to wonder.
Among the problems plaguing a team that ranked as high as No. 2 nationally five weeks ago is a lack of identity -- and the lack of consistency and confidence that comes with such a problem.
A year ago, a big part of the reason the Buckeyes were No. 1 for much of the winter and entered the NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed was that the Buckeyes were really hard to guard -- and they knew it. Almost everything ran through Jared Sullinger, a walking double-double, in the post. He passed out of double teams as well as any big man in the country, and a plethora of shooters waited on the arc for their turn.
That Sullinger almost always required a double team helped that cause, as did Ohio State's ability to use its defense to create transition opportunities and make opponents pay for every mistake.
These Buckeyes certainly miss Jon Diebler and David Lighty, though their absence is not the main cause of the slump that's seen Ohio State lose twice in five Big Ten games. The Buckeyes are a little flat, a little off, a little unsure of themselves.
Maybe we should have listened to coach Thad Matta during Ohio State's 8-0 start, when he kept saying that this team was so young he had a long list of worries that extended beyond early results. Matta has extended his rotation with mixed results, and part of that is due to the mixed results he's received from some of his veteran players.
The Buckeyes were really good in stretches in a loss at Illinois, but only in stretches. Brandon Paul got hot, beating a variety of defenders and making a bunch of crazy shots on his way to 40 points, and the Buckeyes lost a couple good-sized leads and, eventually, the game.
Besides Paul's hot shooting, how it happened -- and how the Buckeyes can get things turned around -- is puzzling.
"I dont know exactly where the teams psyche is," Matta said. "I think our guys know that we can play better basketball. I think that they know what we need to focus in on and how we need to do it, but respecting that we have great opponents on the horizon and we have to meet those challenges.
"I keep using the word consistency with them and putting together solid plays. No letdowns, no plays off, but knowing teams are going to put runs on you. It's what great teams do, but being able to withstand those and understanding our system of what we want to do."
That having three losses in mid-January on a pretty ambitious schedule -- all three losses came on the road, two in what's currently the nation's hottest basketball conference -- counts as a disappointment says a lot about Matta's program and the standard that's been set.
It's clear, though, that these haven't been the same Buckeyes since they routed Duke in late November. Sullinger missed some time and had to play himself back into shape. Point guard Aaron Craft has had the occasional lapse mere mortals sometimes have, the kind he almost never had last year. William Buford has always been a bit of a streaky shooter, but his latest streak is a rough one, and this team needs more from its only senior.
Late in Tuesday night's game, freshman Sam Thompson fired a 3-pointer from the wing. It was his first field goal attempt of the game, and it missed. It was not the shot the Buckeyes wanted or needed. It kind of summed up what's going on.
The Buckeyes we knew last year and for the first month of this season would have gone to Sullinger, or Craft would have drawn a double team, and even amidst Paul's amazing run Craft would have made a steal and Deshaun Thomas would have come out of nowhere with two quick baskets.
We know all that used to happen. We don't know when the Buckeyes are going to find themselves -- and the proper gear -- now.
We know Buford is going to shoot, and keep shooting, and that eventually the shots will drop, even though he's 19-of-50 and 2-of-14 on 3-pointers the last four games. His shots have to come in the proper context, though, and the Buckeyes have to run through Sullinger.
Sullinger knows the double teams are coming, and Thomas has to make himself available and the other guys have to knock down shots. The defense has to improve, too, and set up Craft for transition baskets.
Ohio State plays Indiana Sunday. It's a revenge game from a New Year's Eve upset in Bloomington, when the Hoosiers made enough shots and run to capitalize on Ohio State's lapses and score a big victory. Those things happen -- happened twice last year, at Purdue and at Wisconsin, and really good teams answer in the return game.
Last year, we knew Wisconsin was in big trouble in its return game in Columbus. Can we say the same for the Hoosiers on Sunday?
Either way, Ohio State is not running out of time. Considering that last year's Big Ten was stale and the Buckeyes were so dominant, they may have peaked early. This group clearly has things to work through and room to grow. The talent is in place. Chances are, Sullinger and Company will find a groove.
Matta would just sleep a little better if he knew what team was going to take the floor Sunday.