In the postgame press conference following an embarrassing loss to Penn State last January, former guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. held back tears while trying to make sense of how previously undefeated Ohio State lost its fifth game in six tries.
"This game, this hurts the most out of every game since I've been at Ohio State … We just gotta get back to being a team, wanting to win,” he said while his voice cracked and quivered.
“This is embarrassing. Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now, they're on top of the world. As a team, I don't think we care enough. These losses don't hurt enough."
It was as frank as any assessment offered during an erratic and weird campaign that ultimately ended in a first-round loss to Dayton in March – the team’s shortest stay in the NCAA Tournament since 2009. It’s hard to pinpoint the precise reason why the Buckeyes struggled last year, but there are some plausible theories.
The first is how they lacked true NBA talent on their roster compared to teams of the past that featured players like Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger, and Deshaun Thomas. The second is how they couldn’t shoot the ball well on a consistent basis and how their best scorer, LaQuinton Ross, was streaky and, at times, disengaged. The third defect was a nonexistent inside presence as Amir Williams and Trey McDonald struggled mightily against superior competition.
The Big Ten, one of the nation’s toughest leagues, exposed Ohio State for what it was last season – a good, not great, team with a handful of fatal flaws.
Without program stalwarts like Smith Jr. and all-everything Aaron Craft leading the way anymore, there’s a different feel to the program when you walk inside the Schottenstein Center. But expectations, of course, remain the same for the 2014-15 Buckeyes.
“The goal hasn’t changed. The goal is a Big Ten championship and a national championship,” senior forward Sam Thompson said Monday. “We know that what we did last year was unacceptable.”
That’s awfully harsh. After all, it’s not like Ohio State was bad last year. It finished 25-10 and stood toe-to-toe with some of the best teams (Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State) in the country on a nightly basis.
Something always felt missing with this team, though, and it was far more than just the need for shooters or better play in the paint. The Buckeyes were a tightly-knit group, sure. But they looked curiously discombobulated on the court. Rarely did Thad Matta's squad jell from start to finish.
“We know that what we did last year is not something this program is built on,” Thompson said. “The guys before us did such a good job building the culture, and we really did not uphold that culture last year. We know that we have our work cut out for us to get back to the winning ways of Ohio State and play the game the right way.”
It starts with a five-day trip to the Bahamas to play two games against local teams in the “Summer of Thunder,” a series of scrimmages involving crews like Kentucky, Cincinnati, North Carolina and Pittsburgh. Barring something crazy, all should roll through their overmatched competition pretty easily.
It’s why it’s easy to call this excursion more or less a pretty incredible vacation before the grind of fall semester starts up in a couple of weeks.
But if Ohio State – which features four talented freshmen still learning the ropes wants to recommit itself to a culture that was apparently lost last season, now is an ideal time to do so. They’re on island far away from the day in and day out distractions of life in Columbus.
“We have two games and we have a practice down there. Those three times that we’re in the gym, it’s all business,” Thompson said.
“We have an opportunity to play against some opponents that don’t have Ohio State written across their chest. We’re going to take full advantage of it even though it’s before the season starts. We want to get out of this trip as much as we possibly can.”
Setting a bar for what's acceptable and what's not will take priority No. 1.