And So It Ends?
If Ohio State’s men’s basketball season just ended, this was an appropriate finale: a 66-57 loss to lowly Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday night.
The unannounced and sparse “crowd” at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., saw the most frustrating form of the Buckeyes that OSU fans, unfortunately, have endured at various points of a truly forgettable 17-15 season that very likely just came to an end.
OSU lost to a last-place team that won just three Big Ten games all season thanks to 40-percent shooting, a 15-of-28 showing on the free-throw line and a negative assists-to-turnovers ratio – just to name some of the shortcomings.
Here are a few more: The 11th-seeded Buckeyes allowed 14-seed Rutgers (15-17) to win all the hustle categories and mop up on the boards to the tune of 47-31. Nineteen of those RU caroms came on the offensive end as the Buckeyes stood flatfooted in satisfaction of forcing the Scarlet Knights to fire an errant shot only to watch them grab it right back.
Rutgers had 22 second-chance points to OSU’s six and its bench outscored OSU 32-8.
Then again, who are the Buckeyes to look down on them? Relegated to BTT play on a Wednesday is embarrassing enough, but so is the way the Buckeyes handled adversity for much of the campaign and for the final game of it.
JaQuan Lyle, on again and off again throughout his sophomore season, was lost. He hit just 1 of 8 shots and managed just one assists in 23 minutes. Freshman Micah Potter, who has had a hard time put any quality minutes together for weeks, struggled again: chucking four three-balls (making one) and failing to find any real footing on defense.
Kam Williams, who looked to be an important weapon in the early stages of the season, drifted into the background even more with six points, no rebounds and no assists. And Marc Loving, the team’s lone senior and poster child for two years of misery, joined him in oblivion: five points and one lousy rebound in 36 minutes that need to be left in the film room trash can.
No wonder Thad Matta has resembled a nerve-wracked corrections officer for two years now.
The Scarlet Knights are to be commended for knocking off Illinois at the end of the regular season and showing up to D.C. with a similar hunger. Where the Buckeyes were mentally is almost impossible to decipher. After all, they were outscored 37-25 in the second half of an elimination game they claimed to be anticipating with fervor.
These are uncertain times, especially considering almost all of the roster could return or that several players could make early exits for whatever reason. Last year, after a loss to Florida in the NIT, several of the team’s freshmen vowed to make more impact in 2016-17 – then fled the program.
However, we do know one thing about next season: Matta has his boss’ blessing to return and rebuild.
On Tuesday, with the Buckeyes already arrived to the nation’s capital for the first-ever Big Ten Tournament to be held on the East Coast – next year’s showcase is at famed Madison Square Garden in New York City – OSU athletic director Gene Smith issued the following statement:
“Recently, Thad and I had a great discussion regarding the future of our Men’s Basketball Program,” Smith said. “Thad’s record at Ohio State is an outstanding 337-122; a winning percentage of .734. He is the all-time wins leader and owns the record for most games coached at Ohio State. His teams have won five Big Ten titles, and made nine NCAA postseason appearances. What Thad’s teams at Ohio State have accomplished – both on and off the court – is highly commendable.
“While we are not currently where we aspire to be with our performance on the court, Thad understands better than anyone that component has to improve. I am confident in his leadership to return the program to the winning ways that we have all enjoyed during his 13-year tenure.
“We have had tremendous success with Thad as our basketball coach. His commitment to developing young men in a holistic way and running our program with the highest of integrity continue to be hallmarks of his leadership.”
This, of course, is a great news for Matta fans and those that believe he can still right the ship. However, it also could portend that the university was prepared, barring a miracle in the league tourney, to stay away from any postseason tournaments.
Last year’s NIT opener at the Schottenstein Center drew less than 5,000 fans – and that was a game that featured in-state foe Akron. Smith doesn’t want that kind of turnout again. Meanwhile, Matta has every reason to be ready to move on to a new outlook.
On Tuesday before departing Columbus, the Buckeyes put on their best face and came across as hopeful heading into the postseason. Matta even offered the media some humor and anecdotes.
Some of their comments follow:
Matta on the unique nature of conference tournaments and playing on consecutive days: “I think that this is the beauty of a tournament – it’s bam-bam-bam. There isn’t a lot of time to prepare, there isn’t a lot of time to over analyze. It’s ‘Hey, lets go out and play.’ ”
Matta on a rematch against the Scarlet Knights: “Guys relate better when they see themselves playing the team. … We’ve got all that stuff cut up – postgames, minutes cut up, what we did do well and what we didn’t do well. It’s probably not as difficult when playing against someone you haven’t seen before.”
Jae’sean Tate on how the Buckeyes need to approach postseason: “We’ve just got to make sure we don’t have those ups and downs or lapses going into this week. Coach Matta was talking about just being solid, just being solid and on cruise control. In my opinion there’s not a team we can’t beat. It’s going to be tough.”
Trevor Thompson on the importance of focusing on the impending game: “We definitely have to take every game game-by-game and step-by-step. Every day of practice, every film screening, when we step on the court we all have to take the approach of focusing on the task that’s ahead of us.”
Matta on the OSU defense: “We’ve done a lot with the defensive side of things. We can’t do a lot if we are fortunate enough to keep winning.”
Matta on finding magic in March: “It’s funny, I think it just sort of has to come together. Good group of guys saying we’re not going to let this happen and somehow, some way they collectively find a way.”
Thompson on what is required to beat top-tier teams at this time of the season: “Come ready to play. Be on our A game. We lost by one or lost by two, or had the lead then lost. So we definitely know playing good teams a few times what to expect. What their offense is going to run, how they’ll play defense and we know what we have. I think our biggest thing is we know when we come ready to play and we know when everyone is focused we do great but then again we know if we don’t come ready to play we are a typical team. “
Matta, after pointing out UConn rattled off five wins in five days of the Big East Tournament several years ago: “I am not making any promises, but at this stage anything can happen.”
Tate on the small gap between OSU and the Big Ten’s premier teams: “I was talking to Coach Matta the other day, and out of six Big Ten games we lost, it was all together like 19 points if you combined them all together, so right there that just tells you we are capable of beating anyone in this league. We play to win.”
Matta on getting contributions for his newcomers this season: “It’s a great motivator and I like the young guys we got, obviously we need to take some strides getting the guys in, which we will recruit, and get them ready to roll. It’s kind of exciting for me.”
Thompson on getting ready to play in the BTT: “I think it’s exciting for us, as basketball players, to be in this type of position where we have to play and its either win or lose, win or go home.”
Matta on the same subject: “You better have yourself ready to go. There aren’t a lot of secrets anymore. They just got to go out there and play.”
Now the Buckeyes have lost and they are indeed headed home. But at least they will take their record-breaking coach with them.