After failing to make the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons and seven — potentially eight — players exiting the program with eligibility remaining over the last two years, it’s fairly safe to say we are currently in the middle of rock bottom of Ohio State basketball in the Thad Matta era.
Matta took the program to new heights shortly after he was hired in 2004 — the Buckeyes played for a national championship in Matta’s third season at the helm — and under his direction, Ohio State won five Big Ten regular-season championships, four Big Ten tournament titles and went to a pair of Final Fours all within Matta’s first nine seasons as head coach.
However, since the Buckeyes’ Big Ten tournament crown and Elite Eight appearance in 2013, Matta’s program steadily declined. Ohio State made the NCAA tournament in both 2014 and 2015 but failed to advance out of the first weekend in each. The Buckeyes finished just fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Big Ten regular-season standings those two seasons, as well.
That’s not the issue, however. “Slumps” like those happens at second-tier hoops programs like Ohio State. You’re not going to contend for league crowns and Final Fours in every season. It’s not realistic.
The current state of disarray stems from the past two seasons with the missed NCAA tournaments and roster turnover. Matta’s entire 2015 recruiting class — five members, ranked No. 5 nationally — is now nonexistent as every player is gone from the program following JaQuan Lyle’s stunning departure last weekend.
There have been quite a few low points over the last two years; this currently feels like the lowest.
Could it get worse, though? That’s a difficult question, and it’s hard to envision things being worse than they are currently under Matta.
But from Ohio State’s perspective, yes, it has been worse.
The Randy Ayers era started off with a bang in the early 1990s. Ayers led the Buckeyes to an NCAA tournament appearance in his first three seasons and Ohio State won a Big Ten championship in two of those. However, shortly after that, things went south. Quickly.
Ayers produced just one winning season over the next five — a 15-13 mark during the 1992-93 campaign. During the 1994-95 season, the Buckeyes went 6-22. A pair of 10-17 seasons shortly followed. Ohio State went 54-85 over Ayers' final five seasons. It was rather ugly.
Additionally, there were plenty of off-the-court issues under Ayers. Recruiting violations put the program on probation and stripped it of a scholarship in 1994. Ayers was not allowed to leave campus and recruit during a couple of months as a result.
Multiple players were arrested for off-court issues. There were things that ranged from drunken-driving charges to felony theft and assault. Charles Macon and Greg Simpson were involved in multiple incidents. Simpson, a two-time Mr. Basketball in Ohio, was dismissed from the team after his sophomore season as a result.
Gerald Eaker, a redshirt sophomore on the 1994 team, literally shot out a tire on the car of one of his teammates. That actually happened.
Ayers brought in an eight-man recruiting class in 1995 to deal with some of the dismissals and transfers. Six of those eight players — Damon Stringer, Jami Bosley, Scott Gradney, Mark Howard, Shaun Stonerook and Jermaine Tate — did not finish their careers at Ohio State. Four of those six were dismissed from Ayers' team due to various reasons,
Finally, the Ayers era came to an end following the 1997 season. The Buckeyes finished that year 10-17, by the way. Ayers' replacement? Jim O'Brien. Most are well aware how that one ended, too, as Ohio State once again dealt with NCAA sanctions.
Currently, the Ohio State program is in the worst spot it has been since Matta was hired in 2004. But that is primarily due to on-court struggles for really the last two seasons. Matta created a new bar for his program because of his success; that hasn't been met these last two years.
Barring anything unforeseen happening, Matta will get one more shot to right the ship during the 2017-18 campaign. He's probably earned that right. But if Ohio State doesn't perform next season, it seems highly possible a change would be made at the top.
But while some the angst currently surrounding the program can certainly be justified, history taught us an important lesson.
Things aren't always as bad as they might seem.