Late in the evening on March 31, 2012, the entire Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team and staff looked up at the scoreboard of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and smiled. They had roared back from multiple double-digit deficits to oust the Ohio State Buckeyes and advance to the national championship game. They would lose, eventually, to just another in the string of insanely talented Kentucky teams. Just the most elite programs.
And Ohio State was right there with them. The Buckeyes had beaten Florida and Duke earlier that year. Trounced the Blue Devils, in fact. They went a little cold toward the end of the regular season, losing to the best of what the Big Ten had to offer, but they stomped through the East bracket of the tournament and toppled top-seeded Syracuse to make it to the Final Four for the second time in six seasons.
It’s worth noting that this came on the heels of the Ohio State football team’s first losing season since 1988—it’s what you might call impeccable timing. But this is a story about the basketball team.
The following year, with Columbus-born star Jared Sullinger in the NBA, things felt different. It was Deshaun Thomas’s team. It lacked the wide, firm base that it had enjoyed with a physically dominant center. Still, there would be a trip to the Elite Eight before they bowed out to Wichita State—Matta’s fourth-straight deep tournament run.
A wonderful season.
And it may have been the beginning of the end of this tremendous era of Buckeye Basketball.
Don’t misunderstand: Thad Matta and the Buckeyes are on people’s radars this year. Most respectable outlets have them finishing no worse than fifth in the conference, and the Big Ten typically sends at least five teams to the dance. That said, simply getting to the tournament probably won’t silence the doubters.
Again, this program has scraped the sky before. Matta’s seat isn’t hot. But where once it seemed every year there was a Greg Oden, a Mike Conley Jr., an Evan Turner, a Sullinger coming along to lead the charge—those dominant days are largely in the past. Even the brief era of 2014 number two draft pick D’Angelo Russell feels like a distant memory.
In fairness to the current roster, it’s packed with players who were once highly sought-after recruits. Perhaps not the true blue chippers, but seriously talented guys. So why does this team seem, by recent standards, so average?
Is it the mass exeunt of the 2015 recruiting class? Matta addressed the subject at a charity event earlier in the summer, saying the team, “got rid of problems.” Nothing specific. Nothing specific needed. He’s doing what any good coach would do: see the good in everything and show confidence in his team.
Is it, like the aforementioned Thomas-led squad, the lack of a Sullinger-esque bell cow that can be leaned on in the toughest moments? Is it just simply that after seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, eight in the last 10 years, five Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and one trip to the title game that we’re spoiled and impatient as fans?
Is it that Columbus has now fully reverted to a football-first town with the success they’ve been having across campus? With Urban Meyer’s Buckeye brand at peak level, one shudders to think what attendance will be like in those first several weeks.
Whatever its cause, it’s fairly clear that the public consciousness, the buzz around this team, won’t move the needle. Columbus is Ohio State basketball’s phantom friend: always there when things are good but gone like a ghost at the first sign of adversity.
Maybe it is the end.Maybe obscurity is on the horizon.
Or maybe Matta takes the wheel and leans into it.
There’s a locker room full of players and coaches ready to say otherwise. Senior Marc Loving leads a team that, in spite of the much-publicized transfers, returns a lot of experience. A healthy Jae’Sean Tate will be flanked by Keita Bates-Diop, JaQuan Lyle, and Kam Williams. Center Trevor Thompson will be backed up by David Bell and incoming freshman, Derek Funderburk.
And as for looking forward, Matta’s tightening the borders on Ohio, locking in home state recruits for 2017 and 2018—which is another potential sign that more cohesive units will take the floor at the Schott.
Beyond the schemes and the matchups and future prognoses, there’s a team here looking to regain some glory—some respect. The Big Ten will, as ever, be an elite basketball conference. How Matta pilots this year’s ship through that gauntlet will say a lot about the direction in which it’s pointed in.
Who to Watch
Three key “J’s” in the Buckeye basketball machine
Jae’Sean Tate – Perpetually undersized, but never out-worked, the Pickerington bulldog is back for a hopefully healthier junior season. With an improved outside shooting stroke to pair with his tenacious play in the paint, Tate can be special.
JaQuan Lyle – By just about any measure, the freshman point guard had an underwhelming debut season at the point, chalked up to high media expectations and low team chemistry. Bolstered by some strong breakout games down the stretch, Lyle enters his sophomore season with the keys to the car—albeit a finer-tuned one than last year’s muddled mix. If he can take a big step forward, then so do the Bucks.
Jent, Chris – Fans of the Randy Ayers-coached Buckeye teams remember Jent’s eternal hustle and spark-plug play. In the years since, he’s become a well-respected coach in the NBA, NCAA, and overseas. The one-time LeBron James mentor preaches toughness and accountability, and his presence on the sideline has often ensured the team follows suit. Here’s hoping…
Matta and the Buckeyes re-take the floor for their home openers November 6 against Walsh, followed by other November home games against North Carolina Central, Providence, and Marshall. For more, visit ohiostatebuckeyes.com.