For the second season in a row, Ohio State basketball's season ends before the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. After losing to Arizona yesterday, Ohio State finished the year 24-11, and will very likely be outside of the final AP Top 25 of the year. This was not an altogether different result from last season, when the Buckeyes were upset as a 6-seed by Dayton in the Second Round of the NCAAs. Ohio State also failed to crack the top four of the Big Ten that season, and was at times, difficult to watch.
After having made four Sweet 16s in a row (including one Final Four run, and another team that won 34 games and should have been there), two straight first weekend exits seems like a drastic departure from the recent norms of Ohio State basketball. Now, they turn over half of the roster, and an immediate return to the Sweet 16, or the elite of the Big Ten, isn't certain.
So what happened? Let's take a look at some of the more common theories bandied about right now, and see if they hold up under closer scrutiny.
"Ohio State can't recruit anymore"
I see this one a lot, and I think it's pretty dumb. The 2015 Ohio State class is ranked sixth in the country using the 247Sports Composite. Last year, they were ranked eighth. When Ohio State actually has multiple scholarships to offer, they have consistently been in the Top 10 in the country for recruiting, and near the very top of the Big Ten, for the entirety of Thad Matta's tenure. Very generally speaking, convincing talented kids to come to Ohio State has not been a problem.
This problem gets a little exaggerated, I think, because the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes were very small for Ohio State (three players combined), and because a few kids in Ohio that didn't go to Ohio State went on to become very successful. Iowa's Aaron White (Strongsville) went on to be one of the best players in the Big Ten (and somebody that Ohio State could have badly used), but he was a three-star kid whose only Big Ten offer was Iowa. Nigel Hayes (Toledo), got an Ohio State offer late in his process, but the three-star got more love from Wisconsin and decided to go there. The story of Trey Burke has been retold again and again. We get it.
As far as recruiting goes, a more accurate story might be that Ohio State had some bad luck with roster turnover, assessments, and roster balance. The 2010 class lost Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon to transfers, and both had productive college careers away from Columbus. Those two likely wouldn't have helped this season, but could havelast year. Amedeo Della Valle, the lone 2012 signee, left after just two years to play professionally in Italy. DeShaun Thomas and LaQuinton Ross both left early, forcing Ohio State to replace their leading scorer multiple years in a row. Kam Williams missed an entire year due to mono. And graduate transfer Anthony Lee, brought in to help fortify a leaky frontline, missed much of the season due to injury and never made a significant contribution. Those misses robbed the Buckeyes of potential role players, long range shooting, and continuity.
It is fair to say that Ohio State struggled to quickly recruit for a low post solution after it became more clear that Amir Williams wasn't going to be able to shoulder the load. Ohio State swung hard on Myles Turner and Goodluck Okonoboh, but they went to Texas and UNLV, leaving the 2014 class without a big man ready to contribute right away. Payton Dastrup flipped at the last second and went to BYU. In 2013, they went after Devin Williams (WVU), Kyle Washington (NC State) and Hayes (Wisconsin), as well as Kennedy Meeks (UNC) and BeeJay Anya (NC State), and came up empty.
Next year, Ohio State will have the services of highly regarded Daniel Giddens, as well as Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson and redshirt freshman Dave Bell. Ohio State will also try to bring in more size for 2016 (Derek Funderburk?) It's not that the Buckeyes weren't signing talented players, but perhaps, in retrospect, a more balanced roster may have helped.
"Ohio State can't develop anybody"
So last year, we actually decided to dig into the stats to see if this was actually true; it really isn't. While there are some examples of players who didn't improve a ton, like William Buford, the actual advanced stats showed that multiple players under Matta's tenure, from Evan Turner to LaQuinton Ross, Marc Loving, to yes, even Amir Williams (although he regressed some this season), improved.
It is fair to say that players haven't improved under Matta like they have under say, Tom Izzo, but we're also dealing with very small sample sizes. It's true that Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams did not develop into the caliber of player that could be the best guy for a good team, or even perhaps the second best team. They weren't bad (all three were more than capable defenders, and each brought another strong skill to the table), but all struggled to score, or weren't consistent enough. Maybe that's on the players. Maybe it's because of the particular team setup. Maybe it's a bunch of other reasons. But that, coupled with the roster defections and a few misses over the last few seasons, have put the team in the trickier spot.
This next season will be a key year for the crowd that shows particular concern towards Ohio State player development, since the team will be almost exclusively young players. If another group fails to make a significant step forward, it may point to issues on the staff.
"The 2014-15 team was really young"
This seems like a weird thing to say about a squad with five seniors, but practically speaking, it's true. Quirks in recruiting lead to a bit of a donut sort of squad, and though the team started three seniors, the bulk of the offense routinely came from underclassmen, especially freshmen D'Angelo Russell and Jae'Sean Tate. Unless you're Kentucky, that's sometimes going to lead to erratic results, particularly against strong teams. Ohio State's performances against Louisville, North Carolina, Iowa and Wisconsin certainly support that.
The bad news for Ohio State is that next year's team is going to be even younger, so finding ways to coax consistency, even on those 12 p.m. tip road games where the energy is low, will be critical for them finding success. With an experienced crew in 2013-2014, the Buckeyes weren't able to make much noise. Now they've retooled and added more balance and offensive firepower. Will that be enough?
If struggling means back-to-back 20+ win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances, struggling isn't so bad. It's possible one more transition year is on the horizon before the Buckeyes get back to their higher level of success. What happens this offseason and next season will tell us a lot about the assumptions that have been made about the program.