Ball-handling could be the difference between the Buckeyes being dangerous or one-and-done in March.

After bad loss to Illinois, Ohio State sets sights on Big Ten-leading Spartans

“We needed that one,” the junior forward said after scoring 10 points. “We are .500 (in the Big Ten). We are trying to make the NCAA tournament. We are not a lock, so any game we play, we’ve got to have right now.” 

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said a loss is a loss, but this one appeared to be damaging on at least two levels: It had appeared to be one of the most gettable wins left on the schedule, and it will go down as a bad loss instead. 

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Through Wednesday’s games, Ohio State (16-8, 6-7) was seventh in the Big Ten and No. 36 overall in the new NET rankings that are to be a primary tool for the selection committee when it puts together the tournament field. 

The Fighting Illini were 94th and next-to-last in the Big Ten, ahead only of a No. 112 Rutgers team that also has a win over Ohio State on its ledger this year. 

Nonetheless, Holtmann said he did not plan on looking ahead to Selection Sunday yet. 

“No, no we won’t talk about it,” he said. “We’ll talk about getting better. A lot of teams would like to be in the bubble picture, including the one we played tonight. I just think for us right now our focus is not on bubble or anything like that. Our focus is on getting better, improving, growing. That’s our focus as coaches.”

A familiar flaw

One area is likely to continue to dominate the attention of Holtmann and his staff: Turnovers. 

Ohio State entered the Illinois game averaging a Big Ten-worst 14.2 turnovers per game — and suffered 18 against the Fighting Illini, who perhaps not coincidentally lead the league in taking the ball away. 

Holtmann was well aware of that aspect of the matchup prior to the game and said Ohio State’s continued struggles in that area are not for lack of attention to the problem. 

“Every day — Every day we work on stuff to try to correct some of these measures,” he said, noting the coaching staff simplified the offense about six weeks earlier to try to mitigate the problem. 

Though Holtmann developed a reputation as a near miracle worker as the Buckeyes made a surprise run to the NCAA tournament last season and started this campaign 12-1, there is no magic wand to wave at this point in the season. 

“I just think we’ve got to keep working on it,” he said. "Some of it is we do have some young guys who are trying to figure out what they can and can’t do as far as shot selection and ball-handling, but a lot of it is our older guys need to embrace it and make better decisions and we’ve got to as coaches continue to think about what we can do to improve it.”

Rough ride to the finish?

The rest of the schedule is a good news/bad news situation for Ohio State. 

Beginning with a trip to Michigan State on Sunday (1 p.m.), five of the Buckeyes’ seven remaining games are against teams currently in the Associated Press Top 25 (at No. 24 Maryland and No. 12 Purdue and at home against No. 21 Iowa and No. 20 Wisconsin). 

(A pair of games against Northwestern are the exception.) 

That means Ohio State has plenty of chances to impress the committee, but piling up wins figures to be a challenge. 

They already lost to the Spartans 86-77 in Columbus on Jan. 5, a game that started a five-game losing streak and a 1-6 January for the Buckeyes.

Tiger bros to tangle again Sunday

Another OSU-MSU matchup also means another chance for the Ahrens brothers of Versailles to face off. 

While Kyle Ahrens is a junior forward at Michigan State, Justin is a freshman guard/forward for the Buckeyes. 

The elder Ahrens has started eight of 22 games for the Spartans, scoring 5.8 points and grabbing 2.8 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game. 

He had nine points in the first OSU-MSU game while Justin did not score.

The younger Ahrens, who broke the Midwest Athletic Conference career scoring record and was MVP of the league twice, has played in 15 games for the Buckeyes, logging 98 minutes and scoring 25 points.

“He’s been great in practice, and I think like any freshman you get knocked around a little bit and yelled at by the coaches,” Holtmann said this week. “It’s a long season and that can get the best of you at times, but if we’re not correcting you, that’s when you start to worry. I think he understands it.”

Although Ahrens has made just 6 of 22 (27.3 percent) from 3-point range, Holtmann called him an asset to the program.

The 6-foot-5, 180-pound younger Ahrens can play on the wing but also saw some time at the 4 when starting power forward Kyle Young was out with a foot stress fracture. 

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