I double-checked this morning, but it’s true. It really happened.
A supposedly good Ohio State basketball team lost, at home, to Florida Atlantic.
Basketball seasons are long, and good basketball teams often lose games they shouldn’t, but let’s not sugarcoat this: This was a horrible loss for Ohio State. The Owls entered the game ranked 240 by KenPom, given just a 3% chance of a win. They had already lost to sterling programs like Texas State, SIU-Edwardsville, and Tennessee Martin. They’re not a good basketball team, at least not right now.
This is unquestionably the worst loss of the Thad Matta era at Ohio State, worse than losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech last year. In fact, it’s one of the very worst losses from Ohio State basketball, period, in my lifetime. Maybe the season-opening loss to San Fransisco in 2003? A blowout loss to South Florida in 1997? A loss to a BYU team that won nine games that same season? It’s been a long time.
But a bad loss, even a really bad loss, isn’t the end of the world in a vacuum. Indiana loses to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Michigan once lost to Eastern Michigan and NJIT. You take the jokes on Twitter and the RPI hit, and you move on.
The trouble is, this loss isn’t in a vacuum for Ohio State. In many ways, it was a microcosm of what has been ailing this team for several seasons. And time may be running out to fix it.
Turnovers have killed Ohio State’s ability to create a consistent, efficient offense. And while they avoided too many of them during the game, the Buckeyes had chances to win this game in regulation and in OT. They failed to get a single shot off, turning the ball over both times.
The Buckeyes have been one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country, and it isn’t just because their bigs are getting hacked. Even on a day when they shot relatively well from the stripe, they still left five points on the board at the line.
And in what has been an issue for more than just this season, the Buckeyes played to the level of their opponent. Sure, Ohio State played one of their best games in over year against Virginia, taking one of the best teams in the country, on the road, to the wire. But they also looked listless against Navy, beat North Carolina Central by only single digits, and battled nearly the entire game against Farleigh Dickenson. The Buckeyes lost to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech, and a not-up-to-usual-standards Memphis team last season, keeping them out of the NCAAs.
It’s that last trend that’s perhaps the most troubling. Losses to so-so teams last year could have been forgiven, given how young the Buckeyes were. But Ohio State isn’t that young of a team anymore. Marc Loving is a senior. Trevor Thompson is a redshirt junior. Basically everybody on this team besides Micah Potter is a returning starter. If they haven’t developed the ability to overcome adversity, if they haven’t figured out how to become consistent, when is it going to happen?
You can have a bad season. You can have two bad seasons, if you’re able to sell fans on an exciting future. But this is an experienced, vet-heavy squad for the Buckeyes, and they’re still making many of the same mistakes with turnovers, with defensive intensity, with free throw shooting, that they’ve been making. And it’s taking a toll on Ohio State fans.
Any quick glance at the TV during this early season games shows an awful lot of empty seats at Value City Arena, and it isn’t just because they’re playing a FAU type team. You only need to do a quick search on Twitter, or check the Facebook comments, or ask the Ohio State basketball fan in your life that has the good sense to stay off social media. Are they excited about this basketball team? Do they think it is going in the right direction?
There aren’t program-changing recruits on the horizon, at least not on paper. Ohio State’s highest ranked recruit from the last recruiting class, Derek Funderburk, is redshirting. The bulk of Ohio State’s last huge recruiting class has transferred, sometimes multiple times. The bulk of Ohio State’s last big recruiting class, the 2011 class that featured Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson, also failed to live up to expectations.
Ohio State can still reach some of those high goals for this season, and restore some confidence, energy and momentum to the basketball program. They have two huge matchups coming up against UConn and UCLA, and even salvaging a split before Big Ten play will put them in a position to still contend for an NCAA bid. They’ll have plenty of chances to repair their damaged profile in conference play.
But if the team fails to make the NCAAs, or pick up a few big wins in Big Ten play, you’re looking at perhaps three big recruiting classes in a row that failed to achieve their promise. You’re looking at four full seasons since the Buckeyes made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, or were especially relevant nationally. And you’re already starting to see that those high four-stars aren’t coming to Columbus quite as often as they used to.
This is not a fire Thad Matta column. I’m not at that point yet, even though I know a lot of other Ohio State fans are. But the Buckeyes need to stop making these same mistakes and start taking a step forward towards the vision of this program. And if they can’t, there’s going to be some difficult questions to answer for Ohio State basketball.