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Freshmen transfers a sign of trouble for Ohio State women’s basketball?

The announcement on Wednesday of Tori McCoy and Kiara Lewis departing the program isn’t good news for the Buckeyes.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll admit, the news that Tori McCoy and Kiara Lewis will be leaving the Ohio State women’s basketball program and seeking transfers came as a big surprise to me. Both players just finished up their freshmen seasons in Columbus after being top-25 recruits out of high school, and both saw significant playing time for a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

McCoy and Lewis have talent, that can’t be denied. The former looked the part of a player who could grow into an all-conference post player. But as I’ve thought about it, this development makes me think of a feeling I had watching the Buckeyes at the end of the season.

Despite having had by all accounts one of the most successful campaigns in program history, claiming a share of the Big Ten regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament, there was a disjointed quality to the way the team played and interacted on the court. This was not a squad that oozed togetherness. They seemed to be missing the leadership that departed after last season with Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft.

Head coach Kevin McGuff, who just completed his fourth season at the helm for Ohio State, has been something of a recruiting juggernaut since taking over the program. He signed current All-American guard Kelsey Mitchell, who has a chance at breaking the national scoring record next season as a senior. But Mitchell has admitted in the past to not being a very vocal leader, and with three new transfer players who came from elite programs (Stephanie Mavunga, Linnae Harper, and Sierra Calhoun), that leadership void was visible to the outside observer.

Especially as Mitchell struggled with her shot in the final half-dozen games, there was no one to really step up. Part of that may have been Mavunga’s absence due to injury, but mostly one didn’t detect a sense of urgency from the team. And that’s troubling.

This is a Buckeye squad that by and large has underachieved the past two years. While the recruiting has been solid, the player development has been underwhelming. Anyone who has followed the men’s team the past half-decade knows this is a familiar criticism of Thad Matta, and McGuff seems to be trending in that direction.

Despite the presence of Mitchell, who will go down as possibly the finest player to don the scarlet and gray in women’s hoops history, McGuff has been unable to guide his team into serious national championship contention. What’s more, among the complementary pieces around Mitchell, no one has emerged as a legitimate second option. Looking ahead, the 2017-18 season may well serve as a referendum on this coaching staff’s long-term stability.

Ohio State will have Mitchell and an experienced senior class next year, and expectations will be high. But this could also be the beginning of the end of the contention window for the program in the foreseeable future. Of the players remaining on the roster next season, only two (Calhoun and Makayla Waterman) who will not be seniors have seen meaningful time, and McGuff does not have a stellar recruiting class to fall back on this time.

It’s possible that the departure of McCoy and Lewis is simply a matter of two players finding out that a program isn’t the right fit for them. It’s possible this isn’t a basketball decision at all. We’re dealing with young adults, and any number of circumstances can factor in. But from a program perspective, it’s disconcerting. Blue chip recruits don’t grow on trees, despite the success McGuff has had in the past, and seeing a pair of them transfer after a season can serve as a portent of trouble ahead.

The sting of disappointment from a season that ended on a sour note is still fresh, and there is plenty of time before the next one gets started for the Buckeyes to regroup from this news. Yet, as someone who has watched closely the past four years, the loss of McCoy and Lewis seems to confirm some of the doubts that surfaced about the team in March. A program that seemed to be on the ascent may have in fact already have begun crashing back down.