Ohio State likely took the court for the final time this season on Saturday.
The Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament aspirations officially died out with a loss to Purdue, although they made a valiant effort to pull off an improbable Big Ten Tournament championship. With three wins in Chicago, Ohio State became the lowest seed (13) to reach the semifinal round. But Zach Edey and the Boilermakers stomped out one of the hottest teams in the conference in a 14-point victory at the United Center.
So, where do the Buckeyes go from here? With a 16-19 record overall, Ohio State has no shot at an at-large bid in the Big Dance. That much was clear long ago. But despite not possessing a .500 record, Ohio State isn’t automatically disqualified from a potential NIT selection. The tournament changed its selection criteria several years ago to remove the stipulation that a team must be at least .500 to receive consideration. However, no team has been selected without such a record since then.
When asked about potential postseason options before the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said it’s “a conversation for another time.” But with Selection Sunday just a day away, there’s not much more time to deliberate. After Saturday’s loss, though, Holtmann didn’t seem keen on the idea of continuing the season, citing the health status of several of his players.
“I have thought about it. We have some injuries beyond kind of what's public that make it difficult right now, to be quite honest with you, that we have to really get – we have to get some of our guys back,” Holtmann said. “They're not significant, but they need to be tended to, and they need some time off. So that might answer your question.”
Ohio State junior center Zed Key underwent season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this month and freshman star Brice Sensabaugh was officially shut down for the season on Saturday morning. The Buckeye scoring leader suffered a knee injury in Thursday’s Iowa matchup and missed both Ohio State’s quarterfinal and semifinal contests over the past two days.
But even beyond those two Buckeyes, Holtmann suggested that multiple other Buckeyes are dealing with health issues that haven’t been as publicized. Ohio State is coming off a stretch of four games in four days in Chicago, after all.
“I have thought about it. We have some injuries beyond kind of what's public that make it difficult right now, to be quite honest with you."– Chris Holtmann on the NIT
Following Ohio State’s win over Michigan State on Friday, Buckeye athletic director Gene Smith expressed interest in playing in the NIT in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch. Smith stated the program’s case and said “at the end of the day we deserve to be in.”
“The NIT committee should consider us,” Smith told the Dispatch. “We’re not a team to host, but we’re a team that should be in the NIT. … Records matter, but the reason that committee members watch games is to actually see how teams are playing,” Smith said. “Consider the last games that we’re playing, we’re playing at a high level and I think we’ve earned an opportunity for postseason play in the NIT.”
If the season is over, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than a roller-coaster. Ohio State will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Holtmann’s tenure, and the Buckeyes finished with the program’s worst single-season winning percentage since 1997-98. Ohio State also underwent the longest losing streak in 25 seasons (nine games) during a stretch in which it lost 14 out of 15 games.
But the Buckeyes showed promise as well, and never more so than during what was likely their final four-game stretch. Ohio State won five games out of six before Saturday and lasted longer in the Big Ten Tournament than anyone realistically expected.
With freshmen like Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara all putting their talent on full display in the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State appears to have plenty to build on for the future.
“We just showed what we were capable of playing,” Thornton said. “We didn't show our true character throughout the season. We went through a drought where we didn't play our best. At the end, we picked it up, and we were playing our best basketball. We just showed people we didn't quit. We kept fighting till the end. We played a good Purdue team. Give our hats to them. At the end of the day, I love our guys, love the coaches, love the fans. So I'm so proud of them."
But Ohio State seniors Justice Sueing, Isaac Likekele and Sean McNeil won’t be around to see the team’s progression next season. All three likely played their final game of college basketball on Saturday, and Likekele said the feeling began setting in at the end of the game.
“Me personally, it really is (setting in), whenever that final buzzer went off, walking off the court,” Likekele said. “I'm just real appreciative of all the opportunities I've got, definitely for Coach Holtmann right here, the bond that we built in just a short amount of time. Coach Holt, he's cared for me more than just as a basketball player. That's not something you find all around the country. Like I said, I'm just appreciative of everything in Ohio State. That's just me.”
McNeil said he tried to soak up as many moments as possible during the past four days in Chicago and is grateful for the career he’s had. But perhaps more than anything, he said he simply felt the sting of the loss in the moment.
“One thing I try to continue to keep at the forefront of my mind was to not take a second for granted. We come here and surprise a lot of people, and like Justice said, we finished it off the right way,” McNeil said. “But to come here – just the opportunities, not only here, but throughout my time in college basketball. Got to play on the biggest stage, some of the best venues in America, and two of the best conferences in the country, there's no doubt about that. Reflected on it a little bit, but as of right now, it just hurts with my guys.”