Crossroads: Why The Upcoming Offseason And Next Year Are Crucial For the State of Ohio State Basketball

By Tim Shoemaker on March 21, 2016 at 10:10 am
Ohio State basketball sits on the bench for a game against Florida in the NIT.

Daniel Giddens brought it up all by himself. There was no prompting, just a simple question related to the importance of the development of both he and his teammates this upcoming offseason.

“This is the most important summer of our basketball careers,” Ohio State’s freshman center said Sunday, “because this summer is going to decide where the program is about to go."

“Either we’re gonna bring it back to the glory days … or it’s going to be another year in the NIT.”

And so, Ohio State basketball finds itself at a bit of a crossroads.

The Buckeyes ended their season Sunday with a 74-66 loss to Florida in the second round of that NIT. It was the first time Ohio State missed the NCAA tournament since 2008 under head coach Thad Matta — the program's seven-straight NCAA tournament appearances was seventh-longest in the country — but this past season was somewhat of a culmination of a three-year stint in which some fans would argue has the program trending in the wrong direction.

It sounds somewhat crazy to outsiders, but to understand some fans’ point, you first must understand where the program had been.

Matta took Ohio State to heights it hadn’t seen in years prior to his arrival in Columbus before the 2004-05 season. He led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship in just his second year at the helm and Ohio State played for a national title in just Matta’s third season. From 2010-13, Ohio State was the only program in the country to advance to at least the Sweet 16 in four-consecutive seasons. The Buckeyes won five Big Ten regular-season titles in Matta’s first nine years and four Big Ten tournament crowns.

He raised the bar and raised it almost at an incomprehensible pace.

But here’s the reality of the situation: Ohio State has finished fifth, sixth and seventh in the Big Ten over the last three years and the program has just one NCAA tournament victory in the last three seasons. 

It certainly has not been at quite the same level recently. 

“I would be lying to you if I said I thought this was going to be an easy year,” Matta said following the loss to the Gators. “We knew there were going to be ups and downs this season. I knew that from the get-go, but I think that we saw growth.”

That growth is the important thing here, and it’s precisely why this upcoming offseason is so important to the future of the Ohio State program.

There isn’t currently a player on the Buckeyes’ roster that’s not expected back next season. Ohio State went through its latest season without any seniors and Marc Loving as the lone junior. The rest of the roster was made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores.

That’s a big reason why there was so much inconsistency with the Buckeyes this year. The youth wasn’t necessarily an excuse, it was just more of a fact. Inexperienced players make mistakes and make them often, but with the way Ohio State’s roster was constructed there weren’t really any other options.

Barring any unforeseen departures, however, the Buckeyes will return every guy on their roster plus the additions of a pair of recruits in Derek Funderburk and Micah Potter. Loving will be the only senior and the rest of the team will primarily be sophomores and juniors. It’s far from an “old” team, but the young team talk can and should be thrown out the window.

“I feel like this year we got away with some things because we got the young card, you know what I’m saying? We had five freshmen on the roster,” Giddens said. “Next year, there’s really no excuses. It’s either shut up or go home. If we fail next year, that’s on us. Not on the coaches, not on anyone else, it’s on us individually.”

“I feel as though it’s definitely on us to improve in every aspect as possible. That excuse, it isn’t the case anymore,” redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams added. “This should be motivation for everything going forward because we definitely don’t want to be here next year.”

The inexperience was the big reason for this past transitional year. But in the two previous seasons, Ohio State had plenty of it. Lack of player development was the biggest reason why the Buckeyes weren't contending for Big Ten championships like they were in years past. Last season's seniors — Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald — never really reached their full potential during their careers in Columbus and that has fans concerned for the future.

They are worried that will happen again with this new group of young players, who came to Ohio State as highly-touted as that 2011 class did. So, the program is at a crossroads and next season will be vitally important to which direction Ohio State is going to go. There is unquestionably some talent on the team, but things never consistently clicked this past year.

“We just need to get better everywhere,” freshman point guard A.J. Harris said. “We have to come to practice every day and just work hard to know what we’re capable of doing.”

If not, there’s potential for the Buckeyes to have a repeat performance — something that would be of massive concern. Ohio State needs to start trending back toward those “glory days.”

“It’s definitely a humbling experience,” Loving said of this past season. “Just gotta be as hungry as you can be, but you still have to put in the effort and the hours off the court. You still have to show that effort every day to be able to come into a season like next season and be able to see some difference.”

The players and coaches feel the foundation is there to get back to where the program once was. You’ve seen the flashes of potential. The next step is getting each player to reach that potential on a daily basis.

“From the standpoint of the growth that this team made, I think it was something that we can build for,” Matta said. “I’ve always said this: I’ve coached this team with the future in mind. There’s no question about that.”

The future is officially here now.

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