Ohio State basketball lost again Thursday night, but that wasn’t especially remarkable.
After all, the Buckeyes struggle to win in Madison even when they’re a very good team, which they aren’t this year. The Badgers may be the class of the Big Ten, and they demolished Ohio State, winning by 23 points.
That sucks, but it happens sometimes in college basketball.
The loss was Ohio State’s fourth in a row, dropping them to 10-7 overall. They’re one of only two winless teams in the conference at the moment, joining perpetual cellar dwellers Rutgers. Their NIT hopes, forget the NCAA Tournament for a second, are in jeopardy, unless the season turns around.
Which hey, it could, because in a vacuum, all of those losses are defensible. Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue may all be tournament teams, and all of those games were close. A few changed calls here, a made free throw there, and hey, maybe this team is 12-5, and we’ve having a conversation about the NCAA bubble, instead of a mid-to-late March without Ohio State basketball.
The problem isn’t that Ohio State basketball isn’t very good. The problem is that it’s harder and harder to find reasons to care.
I’m not the only person who is reaching this conclusion. As Dave Briggs points out, attendance at Buckeye basketball games is cratering. In 2014, the Bucks drew 16,474 a game. In 2015-2016? 12,283. This year? It’s 11,641, and falling. That’s nearly 5,000 fans, or the size of an entire low-major arena.
We see it here too, with traffic and interest plummeting in stories about Ohio State basketball, and I’m sure we’re not the only outlet who sees that. And it’s hard to blame folks.
It’s okay to have rebuilding seasons. The Buckeyes have had a few of those over the last few seasons, and they happen to everybody outside of the bluest of the bluebloods in the sport.
But this wasn’t exactly supposed to be a rebuilding season. Ohio State returned their top six scorers from last season. Their best players were upperclassmen. This was the year they were supposed to take a step forward with the core they had been developing over the last few years.
And that hasn’t happened. And it’s not the first time that’s happened either. The 2015 recruiting class, ranked top in the Big Ten and one that was supposed to be the nucleus of future contending squads? Virtually everybody transferred. Of the highly rated 2014 class, D’Angelo Russell is already in the NBA, Dave Bell is barely in the rotation, and Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate are what they are at this point. The superstar 2010 and 2011 classes, headlined by players like Amir Williams, Shannon Scott and LaQuinton Ross, never reached expectations either.
It’s okay to struggle in the name of developing young players. But that’s not exactly what Ohio State is doing right now. Their top ranked recruit from last year, Derek Funderburk, is redshirting. Andre Wesson, the swingman who only ended up in Ohio State’s recruiting class after space unexpectedly opened up, is essentially out of the rotation now that Big Ten play has started.
C.J. Jackson, who coaches and players spoke so highly of during the offseason that it made me increasingly optimistic about the trajectory of the season, has also struggled, especially with his three point shot (he’s shooting below 20% on the season). It’s unclear how high his ceiling even is.
I like Micah Potter, who gets 15 minutes a night. His weaknesses are apparent. He needs to add strength to his frame, and improve his defensive awareness, especially in pick and roll situations. But he has a great outside touch, solid size, and could become a very good Big Ten basketball player.
But if your entire reason for emotionally investing in Ohio State basketball is to watch the development of Jackson and Potter, well, that’s a pretty tough sell.
Sometimes you struggle with transitioning teams while recruiting kicks up. But that isn’t really the case with Ohio State basketball either. There are two players committed for next season: four-star big man Kaleb Wesson, and three-star PG Braxton Beverly. Both may be very good college basketball players, but neither are likely to be superstars. Ohio State’s 2018 recruiting and beyond pales in comparison, at least on paper, to what they were bringing in just a few short years ago.
So the Buckeyes aren’t exactly building for the not-too-distant future. On paper, there isn’t a reason to expect the team to be dramatically better soon. One of their best players is out for the season, and now a squad with a short rotation heads deeper into physical Big Ten play. Maybe they can turn things around, but the potential for a true train wreck is there as well.
It’s possible that I am taking an overly pessimistic view. Maybe the Buckeyes are struggling this year in the face of the Keita Bates-Diop injury, and a young, unproven bench. Thanks to an improved Trevor Thompson — who has quietly become one of the best big men in the conference — the Buckeyes could return nearly all of their contributors again (assuming Thompson doesn’t leave to go play professionally abroad), be deeper, and make a true run next year, once they become more comfortable with Chris Jent, their new assistant coach. That’s entirely possible, and I suppose that’s the best, if not only, sales pitch.
There’s a lot of other things going on right now. Football National Signing Day is in a few weeks, and Ohio State’s recruiting class looks to be legendary. The Columbus Blue Jackets are awesome for the first time in basically, forever. Ohio State men’s hockey is solid after a few rebuilding years. Ohio State has an outstanding women’s basketball team this year as well.
I’m going to keep paying attention to Ohio State basketball because it’s part of my job. But for everybody else, in the face of a rapidly crowding sports scene in Columbus, making the case for increased emotional investment is difficult. And as Ohio State’s administration figures out how to perceive and evaluate this season, in context from the last few seasons, they should keep that in mind.
Fans are voting with their feet. Why should they care?
That’s a tougher question to answer at the moment than perhaps it’s ever been.