COLUMBUS, Ohio — With each passing week, it becomes harder and harder to envision how Thad Matta will turn around Ohio State basketball.
With a storm cloud seemingly parked over the program for the last two months, the vote of confidence Matta received in March feels as if it came five years ago. On the same day the Buckeyes opened the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 11 seed, athletic director Gene Smith backed the longtime Ohio State coach with the following statement.
“Recently, Thad and I had a great discussion regarding the future of our Men’s Basketball Program. 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.”
Later that night, Ohio State lost to No. 14-seed Rutgers. It turned out to be the final game Ohio State played in a dreadful season that saw the team finish with a 17–15 overall and a 7–11 conference record. The Buckeyes, clearly out of the picture for the NCAA Tournament, weren’t invited to the NIT.
Since then, there hasn’t been a single piece of good news to come the Buckeyes’ way, and there’s been plenty of bad. Center Trevor Thompson, the most improved player in the program, declared for the NBA draft for the second year in a row and decided to stay draft eligible this time. He almost certainly won’t be selected, but he calculated that playing abroad would be better than another year at Ohio State. Junior guard Kam Williams also unexpectedly entered the draft and hasn’t yet removed his name. Class of 2018 4-star recruit Darius Bazley decommitted, saying, “They didn’t even make the NIT.”
And on Saturday, news came that point guard JaQuan Lyle, the team’s best returning player, allegedly punched a door and a police car in Evansville, Ind. Ohio State shooed away that news with the odd announcement that Lyle quit the team April 11. Apparently, nobody from the team bothered to tell anyone or remove his name from the roster on the Ohio State website.
For those keeping track, that means via the NBA draft, graduation and quitting the team, Ohio State is losing its second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers from an already underwhelming team. If Williams doesn’t return, the Buckeyes also will be without their No. 6 scorer, a player who averaged 9.4 points per contest.
To top it off, Dayton coach Archie Miller — the man who many believed one day would replace Matta at Ohio State — moved on to Indiana. Instead of rebuilding the Buckeyes, Miller will be competing against them for the foreseeable future.
There are some small consolations if you squint hard enough, though. Williams is likely to return. The Buckeyes signed only two players in the class of 2017, but one is local product Kaleb Wesson, the nation’s No. 6 center and No. 70 overall recruit. Another Ohio product, 4-star forward Derek Funderburk, will play after redshirting last season.
Even with those additions, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State becoming substantially better next season. Ohio State’s five-member class of 2015 ranked fifth in the country — and all five members are gone now that Lyle has departed. To get nothing out of a supposedly elite recruiting class is bad enough, but the repercussions from that failure appear to be poisoning future classes, too.
The Buckeyes probably will need to make the NCAA tournament in March for Matta to return. That’s a fair mandate for a coach who raised expectations for the program but has declined in wins each of the last six seasons. It’s also a task that looks increasingly impossible to fulfill.