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Struggling Ohio State trying to avoid another January swoon

West Virginia's Miles McBride (4) shoots over Ohio State's Andre Wesson (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Cleveland. West Virginia defeated Ohio State 67-59. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

By MITCH STACY AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is trying to head off another January swoon.

The third-year-Buckeyes coach says he never knows exactly what kind of team he’s got until January arrives, bringing the first of a long, arduous stretch of Big Ten games.

So far, not so good.

After impressive non-conference victories over Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky and an AP Top 25 ranking as high as No. 2, the Buckeyes’ offense suddenly went sloppy and cold. Three games slipped away in 10 days, including two conference games to start the month.

The Buckeyes shot just 31.3% in an 8-point loss to West Virginia on Dec. 29. Last Friday, a 4-point home loss to Wisconsin saw the Buckeyes hit 40.1 percent of their shots, nearly five points off their average. On Tuesday, they lost to Maryland on the road 67-55, shooting a dismal 31.3%. Ohio State was held under 60 points in all three games.

Against Maryland, Ohio State hit just five of its 27 3-point tries, and key players got into foul trouble.

“I feel like we had a different energy from the beginning of the season,” guard C.J. Walker said. “We got to get that swagger back, and it all starts in practice.”

Holtmann is trying to keep it from getting out of hand again. Last year, the Buckeyes finished December 2018 at 12-1, only to lose the first five in a row and six of the first seven after the calendar turned over to January.

The difference between this year and last is that Holtmann has — thanks in part to a recruiting class considered among the best in the country — more talented players at his disposal. It could be the most talented team he’s ever had as a head coach, led by freshman point guard D.J. Carton, whose dynamic potential already is evident.

Holtmann said it’s just a matter of keeping the players’ heads in the game and still playing hard in the final 4 or 5 minutes.

“I’m just really trying to keep them focused on the day to day,” Holtmann said. “I think there’s probably a greater understanding among our young guys how competitive Big Ten play is and how good our league is. The reality is, it’s not getting any easier.”

The one constant has been the great play of a slimmed-down Kaleb Wesson, who is dominating teams inside and has added an accurate 3-point shot to his repertoire. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.3 rebounds.

Wesson will get some physical help inside when 6-foot-9 Kyle Young returns to the lineup after an appendectomy. That could happen as soon as this weekend.

“We’ve obviously played a lot of great games against teams so we know what we’re capable of doing if we stay focused for 40 minutes,” Walker said. “Obviously, we know what we have to do in those situations. The Big Ten is hard, everybody is going to make shots, everybody is going to come to play.”

The No. 11 Buckeyes ( 11-4, 1-3 Big Ten) play Indiana on Saturday and then return home to face Nebraska on Tuesday.

“I’m really just assessing us from day to day and how we’re moving forward in the target areas we need to improve in,” Holtmann said. “Beyond that, the wider scope of things, I’m not really concerned with right now.”

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