Let's get this out of the way right up front. I am not on Team #FireMatta. I never have been. I think I speak for everybody who writes for this website when I say that.
In fact, if you were to try and figure out a general theme of the basketball coverage on this website over the last few years, it might be contrarian optimism. We might have been Amir Williams' last friend -- not even defender, just proponents of treating him with basic human decency -- on Buckeye Internet. We've pointed out that while we're sorry you're offended by his body language, Marc Loving is also not worth harassment (or worse) multiple times this season. I've personally written something to kick off the last two seasons about how I expected the team to be fun and interesting, even in the face of challenges, and I totally meant it. By and large, I don't think we've been given to too much Chicken Little-ing.
So we don't think the sky is falling. At least, not yet. But it is very hard to look at the state of Ohio State basketball over the last few seasons, and especially the last few weeks, and not grow concerned.
What's happened? Let's take a quick look:
Unexpected roster turnover
Monday night, it was reported that Daniel Giddens would be transferring away, making him the second member of the Class of 2015 to leave the program (Austin Grandstaff left for Oklahoma before Big Ten play started). Rumors are flying that Giddens won't be the last player to leave the program in the near future, as one, or potentially more young players could be transferring soon too.
The loss of Giddens especially hurts, given Ohio State's struggles with big man recruiting over the previous classes. Giddens was an especially raw player, particularly on offense, and his free throw shooting and high foul rate made it difficult to use him in late game situations, or with heavy minutes. But it was easy to see how with the right seasoning, he could become a star. Right out of the box, he established himself as an excellent shot blocker, and with his athleticism and intensity, he could have become something Ohio State hasn't really had in years, a true rim protector. He will be missed.
One transfer, and maybe even two, isn't the end of the world. Players leaving in college basketball has become more and more common, and players have individual circumstances where a change of scenery might do them good. Hell, I transferred schools after my freshman year myself. But potentially losing the bulk of what was the best recruiting class in the Big Ten only a year later would absolutely set Ohio State back significantly, given the timing. It also doesn't bode well for the internal leadership situation of this program.
These sudden losses are compounded by a string of bad recruiting swings-and-misses.
Ohio State's recruiting misses have added up
Unexpectedly having a few extra scholarships isn't always a bad thing, but the way the last few recruiting classes have gone for Ohio State, there may not be cause for as much optimism. The misevaluation of players, poor timing of scholarships, and failure to lock down talent close to home has clearly begun to catch up with the Buckeyes. Ohio State hasn't a problem picking up kids who may look good on the ol' 247 Sports Composite, but the results on the court haven't really matched up.
Ohio State's two-man 2016 recruiting class is only 9th in the Big Ten, which especially stings given how deep the 2016 basketball class was in the state of Ohio. You can forgive the Buckeyes for missing on the top two kids in the state, as Omari Spellman and V.J. King played HS ball out of state and didn't have the same emotional ties to Ohio, but 3rd ranked Nick Ward and 5th ranked Matt Moyer, both kids from right down the street in Gahanna, went elsewhere. Xavier Simpson, a 4-star point guard out of Lima, is Michigan bound. Seth Towns, a four-star, easily B1G caliber swingman from Columbus, is off to Harvard. Other Big Ten caliber players dot the rankings and will head elsewhere.
If Ohio State knew they'd have three or four scholarships in 2016 thanks to roster attrition, they probably would have gone after these players harder, but instead, they'll either have to fill up on graduate transfers, or roll over to 2017, which doesn't have nearly as many targets.
Ohio State missing on other, out of state prospects hurts too. The program went all-in on five star point guard Kobi Simmons, only to lose him to Arizona, where he is now a major recruiter. The Buckeyes went in on multiple big name targets before Giddens in 2015, only to come up empty as well.
There are too many three-star Ohio kids that Ohio State passed on that have become productive players, and too many recent Ohio State signees that have either left early, or not panned out. You can take a few Ls on the trail, but not over multiple years. Otherwise, things can start to snowball.
The team has gotten worse every year for multiple years in a row
It's harder to sell momentum on the recruiting trail, or to fans, when the product has sagged for years. Ohio State has won only a single game in the NCAA Tournament over the last three years. Since making the Elite Eight in 2012-2013, Ohio State's win total has fallen every season (25, 24, 21). This year's result was defendable, given the youth, schedule, and injuries, but now with transfers threatening to rob depth, next year's unit could be prevented from taking a significant step up.
There are other worrisome signs, too. The Buckeyes haven't had a reliable secondary scoring option since the Sully years. They haven't had great post options on offense since about that time as well. There's reason to be worried about the internal culture of the team as well. Nearly an entire class looking to bail isn't promising, and neither is the fact that D'Angelo Russell essentially called out his old Ohio State teammates, minus Kam Williams, for not working hard enough. And now, attendance has fallen to the lowest level since 1998. All of these things are related.
It isn't all doom and gloom right now. As far as we know, at least Ohio State's top six starters will be back. A starting lineup of JaQuan Lyle, Keita-Bates Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, Marc Loving and Trevor Thompson, with Kam Williams, can still do a lot of damage in Big Ten play. Depending on who Ohio State is able to bring in the augment the bench, and whether Derek Funderburk or Micah Potter can contribute anything right away, this is still a team that should, at the very least, make the NCAA Tournament.
But it's hard to look at everything that's happened, especially if more players decide to transfer, and think that nothing is wrong. That doesn't mean that Matta and company can't fix it. But this needs to be a big season in a lot of ways for Ohio State to reestablish a culture, the expectations, and their ability to assess, recruit and retain top talent, and to get back in the picture in the Big Ten.
Given everything that's happened, if the Buckeyes struggle again and fail to improve, this program may need to ask some very difficult questions. It's not an easy thing to say, but it's tough to play that contrarian when the data starts to show something different.