Whether LaQuinton Ross could emerge as Ohio State's go-to scoring threat was supposed to be the barometer for success for the Buckeyes this season.
Perhaps it's time to abandon that theory.
Ross scored a game-high 22 points on a respectable 17 shots Thursday night at Minnesota, but the junior forward did not receive nearly enough help. Only one other Ohio State player tallied double figures and the team shot 35.3 percent from the field against the Gophers' zone as the Buckeyes fell 63-53.
Shaky offense isn't the only reason an Ohio State team that was 15-0 and ranked third in the nation only 10 days ago is now mired in a three-game losing streak for the first time since Feb. 2009. Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State have each shot abnormally high percentages against the Buckeyes' vaunted defense, with the Gophers becoming the first team this season to eclipse 50 percent.
Minnesota consistently hurt Ohio State in the paint to notch a victory that solidifies the Gophers (14-4, 3-2) as an NCAA tournament contender and a threat to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten in Richard Pitino's first season. Starting center Elliott Eliason had 12 points and 13 rebounds, backup Mo Walker hit both of his shots in just six minutes of playing time and 6-foot-8 forward Oto Osenieks also added eight points.
Forcing 18 turnovers and keeping guards Austin and Andre Hollins in check enabled Ohio State to stay close most of the game, but the Buckeyes' backcourt had too many problems of their own on offense.
A one-point Ohio State lead with 13 minutes to go quickly vanished in a flurry of turnovers and missed jump shots against the Minnesota zone. No perimeter player besides Ross could either create his own shot or consistently knock down an open jumper as the Buckeyes made only 7 of 22 shots in the second half and had 10 turnovers, a performance reminiscent of their second half against Iowa a few days earlier.
The question now becomes whether Ohio State can emerge from this funk in time to contend for a top-three finish in the Big Ten.
On one hand, it's easy to question now whether Ohio State was ever a top-five team since the best teams it beat in non-league play were disappointing Marquette and Notre Dame and it needed a late miracle to knock off the Irish. On the other hand, enough proven veteran talent returns from a 29-win Elite Eight team that it's difficult not to envision the Buckeyes steadying themselves.
One thing that will help Ohio State is its upcoming schedule. A road game at a Nebraska team that is winless in Big Ten play is followed by home games against struggling Illinois and bottom feeder Penn State.
Three straight wins could be the confidence boost Ohio State needs entering another tough stretch of the Big Ten slate. Or a loss or two will prove the cracks that have begun to show in the Buckeyes may prove to be more difficult to patch than expected.