COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Ohio State basketball, this season was supposed to be different.
After a disappointing 2015-16 campaign ended with the Buckeyes relegated to the NIT, players vowed improvement. Ohio State had never missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons during coach Thad Matta’s tenure, which began in 2004. And that run seemed likely to continue, especially considering that every scholarship player on the team last season still had eligibility.
Over the course of the past year, however, things haven’t gone as planned. Players have left, injuries have occurred and the on-court product hasn’t always delivered. Here are five things that helped keep Ohio State from making the 2017 NCAA Tournament:
In interviews after the season-ending loss to Florida in the second round of last year’s NIT, every freshman said they’d be back at Ohio State this season. That turned out to be pretty far from the truth. Of the five freshmen in a class rated No. 5 by the 247Sports composite rankings, four transferred. Only point guard JaQuan Lyle remained.
Some have struggled to find new teams since leaving Ohio State. But the loss of Daniel Giddens to Alabama in particular robbed the Buckeyes of a promising frontcourt player. The others didn’t contribute as much in their debut seasons, but Ohio State could have used the depth, experience and continuity. Instead, losing four freshmen messed up the roster construction and also cost the Buckeyes a quartet of returning players — most of whom were well-regarded as recruits.
The Virginia loss
Ohio State wasn’t expected to go to Charlottesville on Nov. 30 and beat No. 6 Virginia, but it very nearly happened. After starting 6-0, the Buckeyes headed east for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They came in hot after a 41-point win against Marshall in which the Buckeyes finished with 111 points.
Ohio State continued that success early against the Cavaliers, racing to a 12-point halftime lead against one of the best defensive teams in the country. However, Virginia quickly clawed its way back in and took the lead a little more than 5 minutes into the second half. Ohio State would regain the lead and work it back up to 8, but surrender it yet again with 2 minutes to go. A 3-pointer by Lyle at the buzzer missed, and Virginia held on for a 63-61 win.
Had Matta’s men been able to take a win there, it would have given them a signature victory and perhaps some more confidence.
Forward Keita Bates-Diop missed five games in nonconference play — including the Virginia game — with a sprained ankle, but returned to the lineup in early December. A month later, however, Ohio State decided he needed to undergo season-ending surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg sustained before the season.
Even though it put the team’s tournament hopes at risk, Matta knew what had to be done.
“That’s a punch in the gut to us,” Matta said. “It is what it is, and we’ve got to keep moving forward. In a game like that, he can help us. But with that said, injuries are gonna happen. It looks like we’re going to be able to redshirt him because he beat the timeline. I feel awful for Keita and I’m thankful for what he gave us in terms of playing with a lot of pain. I told him, ‘I don’t need that in my career now. I’m not going to play a guy who’s injured.’ So he’s done.”
Just like that, the Buckeyes were suddenly without one of their best and most versatile players for the remainder of the season, including almost all of conference play.
The slow start
Ohio State missed a chance for critical nonconference wins against Virginia and UCLA. The Buckeyes also picked up a terrible loss at home to a dreadful Florida Atlantic squad. Big Ten play offered a fresh start, but ultimately became more of the same.
The Buckeyes opened conference play with four consecutive defeats. They lost to Illinois by 5, Purdue by 1, Minnesota by 10 and Wisconsin by 23. The first two games were dispiriting in their closeness, the last two because of their blowout nature. From the start, Ohio State was chasing teams from the bottom of the standings.
Over the course of the 2016-17 season, Ohio State never found a truly dependable performer. Jae’Sean Tate averaged 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds, but he rarely took over games. Five other players averaged between 9-13 points per game, but those totals often came about by scoring 15 one game and 4 the next.
There was no D’Angelo Russell to carry the team when things got rough. And even when the offense showed up, there were times when the defense didn’t. When it came down to it, this team more often than not failed to execute when it needed to.