Ohio State’s season ended without much in the way of tangible accomplishments, team-wise.
The Buckeyes finished second-worst in the conference in the regular season, fell short of a Big Ten Tournament championship despite a resilient run in Chicago and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. With a 16-19 record, Ohio State didn’t even earn a spot in the NIT.
Add in the most losses, worst winning percentage and longest losing streak since 1997-98, and many of Ohio State’s most memorable achievements in 2022-23 were dubious ones. But both within the Buckeye program and outside of it, there are plenty of positive thoughts about the immediate future.
“Their future is bright. If you know basketball, you definitely understand that Ohio State – some people got their licks on them this year, but that's going to come to a screeching halt."– Matt Painter on Ohio state
Just ask Purdue head coach Matt Painter, who raved about the potential of Ohio State’s young core minutes after effectively ending its season on Saturday.
“You can kind of see the heart of Ohio State, and those guys really played well in this tournament. We were fortunate to play them after they've already played three games, and we've only played one,” Painter said in his postgame press conference. “I think you can see the future of Ohio State with (Felix) Okpara, (Roddy) Gayle, and Bruce Thornton. They've got a great class coming, and they've got a great coach. They lost a lot of close games this year, and some people got them. But I think you can see the future of Ohio State and how good they're going to be.”
Painter thinks Ohio State could have enjoyed more success this season, particularly in Saturday’s semifinal matchup, if it hadn’t been dealing with multiple injury issues. But given how the Buckeyes performed late in the season with several true freshmen leading the way, Painter said Ohio State will only build on that momentum moving forward.
“You get to a certain point in the season where people understand about sacrificing and doing things that affect winning. I think with their youth and their injuries, it took them a little bit longer,” Painter said. “Then, when you lose closer games, it affects you differently. Then obviously, the way they've played here in this tournament just shows you how good of a coach he is, first of all, and the pieces that they have, even when they're shorthanded. Like how does this look with Zed Key out there and Brice Sensabaugh? That's a tough cover. We were struggling to guard them today. You add those two pieces, and you're really going to struggle.
“Their future is bright. If you know basketball, you definitely understand that Ohio State – some people got their licks on them this year, but that's going to come to a screeching halt. They have a very, very good young nucleus.”
Chris Holtmann said Painter’s comments were “a good thought” but knows an offseason of hard work and adjustments must occur before growth can follow. Holtmann said his biggest focus will be eliminating “some of the things that really ailed us this year,” such as making sure Ohio State doesn’t need to win five games in five days to earn a bid in the Big Dance.
Holtmann also said his team began internalizing many of the coaching staff’s messages at the tail end of the season, and its improved performance underscored that notion. Ahead of next season, though, he wants to ensure that happens earlier in the year.
“We have four new (incoming freshmen). Whether or not we add someone through the transfer portal or whatever. We have to get that message,” Holtmann said. “I think the benefit is we have some really important guys that have been through it that are now returning that can speak to the importance of that and can live it. I'm not saying we didn't last year, but it was just such a new group last year.”
Ohio State may lose leading scorer Brice Sensabaugh to the NBA draft, but Thornton, Gayle and Okpara are all expected to return after gaining valuable experience and an abundance of on-court opportunities in 2022-23. Perhaps no one player’s Big Ten Tournament performance lends more credence to Ohio State’s expected improvement than Gayle, who had his three best games of the season in consecutive days to close the year.
Mostly a non-scoring factor for Ohio State throughout the season, Gayle scored nine points in the final 6:02 to upset Iowa in the tournament's second round. Then he dropped a career-high 15 points the next day against Michigan State and topped that with a 20-point day versus Purdue on Saturday.
Gayle said the three-game stretch was a huge confidence booster heading into the offseason and is looking forward to the progress he and his young teammates can make with an entire season under their belt.
“I believe us freshmen and the returning players for next year need to set a level of intensity from early on. I don’t think we should be able to wait all the way to February or March to play some of our best basketball,” Gayle said. “I think it should be coming in January, where I think we should already be together. With a decent amount of returners next year, I think our chemistry will be a lot better. It’s up to people like Bruce, me, I have to step up a little bit just to show the freshmen and the newcomers how we want to play.
“I’m very excited. Especially me and Bruce returning, I feel like me, Bruce, (Felix), I feel like the sky is the limit for us. We’ve shown so much improvement throughout the season. I feel like we have so much more to grow. So I think it’s gonna be a really good improvement this year.”
As for how the team’s struggles in 2022-23 will impact the group moving forward, Gayle said it will only add fuel to the fire.
“I’ll always look on the tough times because that’s just a simple way to learn. But I will take this energy, this feeling of disappointment kind of in the season, and channel this anger into next year so we can have a better start,” Gayle said. “And I think we’ll be a better team.”