Barring a string of upsets in March, it's probably fair to call this Ohio State team a little bit of a disappointment. With four games left to play, the Buckeyes would need quite a collapse to miss the NCAAs entirely, but Ohio State is likely to be playing in the 7-10 seed range, without anything resembling a quality road victory, and little in the way of quality wins entirely. It is probable that they finish with Ohio State's lowest regular season win total in years seven years as well.
The fact that Ohio State could win 21 games, finish in the top half of a competitive conference, make the NCAA tournamentand still consider the season a disappointment speaks to the level that Thad Matta has elevated Ohio State basketball. Ohio State has made the NCAAs every season of Matta's tenure but two, and the Buckeyes faced an NCAA tournament ban during his first season in Columbus. Over the last five years, the Buckeyes have made an Elite Eight, a Final Four, and two Sweet 16s, including a year when they dominated the regular season and finished 34-3. Frustrations aside, Ohio State basketball has been excellent more often than not under Thad Matta.
Except for one season: 2007-2008. And when you take a closer look, that season wasn't totally dissimilar to this year's squad.
For those who don't remember, the 2007-2008 Buckeyes finished 19-14 in the regular season, but went on to beat UMass 92-85 and win the NIT, behind a 23 point effort from Kosta Koufos.
Ohio State wasn't expected to compete for a national title like they had the previous season, as Mike Conley, Greg Oden and Daequan Cook all left for the NBA. They were, however, expected to be competitive, in large part thanks to another highly regarded recruiting class. That class was headlined by the five-star Koufos, who was projected to help fill the large shoes of the departed Oden. With a slew of other talented youngsters and some key role players from last year's team returning, the Buckeyes expected to at least hang around.
Things didn't start out well for that Buckeye team. After a nice win over a ranked Syracuse squad (who would also disappoint and join the Buckeyes in the NIT), Ohio State played perhaps their single worst game in the Thad Matta era, a 70-47 embarrassment at the hands of Texas A&M. That was shortly followed by a blowout at Butler (65-46), and an eight-point win over lowly Coppin State where the Buckeyes scored only 47 points. The Buckeyes rallied a little at the end of the season, knocking off ranked Purdue and Michigan State clubs before the Big Ten Tourney, but a woeful 2-6 record in February, followed by a first round exit at the hands of Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, sealed their fate.
So what went wrong? Ohio State's freshman star played well enough, leading the team in rebounds while putting up 14.4 points per game, but he wasn't good enough yet to carry the entire load offensively, and struggled during physical Big Ten play. Ohio State's upperclassmen, from leading scorer Jamar Butler, to Othello Hunter and Matt Terwillinger, were role players who struggled to elevate the games when the team needed them to do more, especially score. When you add all of that up, plus a short bench and a little bit of bad luck, and suddenly, you have a completely average team.
One freshman superstar who struggles with occasional inconsistency, plus an underwhelming senior class and a supporting cast that's too young, leading to breakdowns in the offense? That's not an inaccurate way of describing the 2007-2008 team. And it's also a fair way to describe this year's team.
The similarities aren't 100%. D'Angleo Russell is a way better college player than Koufos was, Sam Thompson is better than Othello Hunter, and the overall depth on the roster is probably better than it was back in 2007, which is why Ohio State will likely be in the NCAAs instead of the NIT.
But there is good news. The next season, sporting another young roster, the Buckeyes improved enough to grab an 8-seed, thanks to Evan Turner blossoming into a big time player, improvements from David Lighty and Jon Diebler, and a strong freshman campaign from William Buford. They didn't take that next step, in no small part due to the shortcomings of five-star big man B.J Mullens, but there was hope. The year after that, when that young core finally matured, Ohio State was a 2-seed, and dominated the Big Ten.
Ohio State's roster is flawed and mismatched right now, but there is hope on the horizon, with a top 6 recruiting class coming in this season, and with more strong talent likely to join in the 2016 class. The Buckeyes have reason to be optimistic about their big man rotation, and there are several shooters that with a little seasoning, could be excellent fits for the team.
Ohio State struggled badly in 2007-2008 (and really, in 2008-2009 too), but those young players eventually grew to form the nucleus of one of the best Ohio State teams of all time. Given how this coaching staff has recruited, and their record of success, its worth giving them the benefit of the doubt. The last time they had these problems, things still turned out okay.