It has been repeated often enough that it has become almost a running joke at this point, but at the start of the season, the Ohio State basketball team was picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten by the media that covers the league.
This time last year, the Buckeyes flamed out of the Big Ten Tournament, losing to basement-dwelling Rutgers on the event’s opening day. That loss barely caused a ripple in Columbus. The team seemingly included malcontents and players who were only vaguely interested in fulfilling the on-court responsibilities that accompanied their scholarship agreements. It was almost a relief when they missed not only the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT as well.
New head coach Chris Holtmann arrived on June 9, months later than the traditional transition time for coaching staffs. Almost immediately, two players left the program. True freshman Braxton Beverly was granted a release from his scholarship and Derek Funderburk was dismissed for “failure to meet team expectations.”
On June 30, the Buckeyes’ new coach had been on the job for less than a month and had a roster with a total of eight scholarship players.
Saturday night in Boise, just 260 days after that nadir, that same Buckeye team had 25 wins on its resume, missed a share of the Big Ten regular season title by the margin of a banked-in half-court shot against Penn State, and was six minutes away from advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday night’s 90-84 loss to Gonzaga might have meant the end of the Buckeyes’ basketball season, but this is just the start for Holtmann’s program. In fact, that game serves as a great measuring stick for just how far the team had come in Holtmann’s short tenure.
Back in November, the Buckeyes and Zags met in the Phil Knight Invitational. Most OSU fans probably don’t even remember that game – it was the night before the Ohio State and Michigan renewed their football rivalry in Ann Arbor, and the basketball team hadn’t provided much cause for excitement at that point.
Gonzaga absolutely blew the Buckeyes off the floor that evening, rolling to an 86-59 win. When OSU lost two of its next three games, the pundits and naysayers certainly seemed to have pegged the Buckeyes’ destiny pretty precisely.
But then a funny thing happened. That mismatched Ohio State squad won at the house of horrors known as the Kohl Center, absolutely liquefying Wisconsin 83-58. And then they won their next game at home against Michigan. And when Big Ten play resumed in January, they just kept on winning.
They started league play 9-0, and reached 13-1 at one point. They beat No. 1 Michigan State at home and No. 3 Purdue on the road. The only loss came on that ridiculous banked-in buzzer-beater from half-court against Penn State.
Suddenly, for the first time in a few years, Ohio State basketball was relevant. But even more than that – it was exciting again.
The regular season closed with something of a thud, and their trip to the Big Ten Tournament lasted exactly as long as it had the year before, but on Selection Sunday, they put on their dancing shoes for the first time in three years.
And despite what some naysayers may have thought about their chances to play more than one game in Boise, they did it. The beat South Dakota State and then overcame a 15-0 deficit against Gonzaga to take a 67-62 lead with six minutes left to play.
They couldn’t close it out, but even after falling hopelessly behind, they fought until the absolute end. Keita Bates-Diop canned a three-pointer right at the buzzer. They weren’t going to win, but they sure as hell weren’t going to quit, either.
This year’s OSU squad was not a particularly talented group of players. Bates-Diop will play in the NBA, probably next season. A few other players will ultimately get a chance to cash paychecks somewhere, whether it’s here or overseas.
But make no mistake, this was a roster with some significant holes. All five members of its highly-touted 2015 recruiting class were gone before the year started. One guy from each of the 2014, 2016, 2017 classes had vanished by the start of the season as well. That’s eight players who should have been contributing to this progam, all gone.
Is there any wonder this team seemed to wear down late in the year?
The 2018-19 Ohio State basketball team will have a very different look from the one that just left the court for the final time. Six players saw more than 12 minutes of action against the Zags. Of those, Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams, and Andrew Dakich will be gone. Keita Bates-Diop will almost certainly turn pro, too.
But Holtmann and his staff will return. They will have a full offseason to prepare their players in their conditioning program. They have four new players signed and ready to go.
With short notice and a shorter bench, Holtmann turned what was supposed to be a Big Ten also-ran into a near-conference champion and legitimate threat to play multiple weekends in the NCAA Tournament. For the first time in several years, Ohio State basketball actually matters.
And one final word of warning: If the young Buckeyes get off to a slow start next fall, be patient. The best is yet to come.