Ohio State has at least one game left to play in what was an extremely unexpected 2017-2018 season. The Buckeyes aren’t anywhere near the bubble, and will happily accept their five seed that they receive next Sunday. It’s a far cry from the tumultuous 2016-2017 campaign that saw Marc Loving shrug his way through his senior season, JaQuan Lyle dribble into turnovers late in every close game, and an overall effort that felt more becoming of a 40+ men’s league (those dudes can ball, don’t sleep) than a Big Ten power.
That doesn’t make the losses hurt any less. Ohio State has been one of the best stories in college basketball this season, a giant that finally woke up from its four-year slumber, as it roared into the Big Ten title race out of nowhere. Keita Bates-Diop deservedly won Big Ten POTY. Chris Holtmann deservedly won Big Ten COTY. But, that success may be their biggest problem.
That seems counter-intuitive, sure. A basketball team being good after being bad for several years is demonstrably a good thing, but that improvement and the speed with which it happened has led the Buckeyes to where they were tonight: on the wrong side of yet another loss to the seventh best team in the Big Ten, playing without their starting center.
This isn’t the first time an Ohio State team has started hot (unexpectedly hot), and cooled down as the season came to a close, as the Buckeyes had a very similar trajectory back in the 2013-2014 season. Ohio State, led by a scrappy veteran point guard, a junior forward that could score from everywhere, a sharpshooting two guard, and a ton of upperclassmen lost to a decent to above-average Penn State team, in crushing fashion, on what was essentially a buzzer beater.
There’s no way to know if that sentence was about this current team or about the ‘13-14 team without clicking that video (I wouldn’t recommend it unless you like being sad). The point is, that there are a ton of similarities between this team and that team, and ultimately, the same thing that crashed that team is probably going to crash this team: the crippling weight of expectation.
The ‘13-14 team won their first 15 games, and finished 25-10 with a loss to a mid-major in the first round of the tournament. The ‘17-18 squad won 13 of their first 14 conference games, only to finish 24-8, with an undetermined, though seemingly predictable (and likely similar) finish to the season in the tournament.
If you tell any Ohio State fan at this time last year that the Buckeyes would be 24-8 and second in the Big Ten going into selection, they’d rightfully be ecstatic. However, if you’ve been anywhere near social media in the past 40 minutes or so, you’d know very well that folks are extremely angry on the internet about college athletics. That didn’t happen last season, at least not nearly on this scale. Was it a bummer when Ohio State lost? Sure, it’s always a bummer when Ohio State loses; but with the success this team has had, those losses have changed from disappointments to travesties, and the team has returned to a focal point in Columbus.
The only issue? This team isn’t ready to be the focal point in Columbus. There’s a reason they were projected to finish 11th in the Big Ten, and no matter what they say, the players didn’t expect this either. Ohio State doesn’t have the depth, talent, or roster to be the focal point of one of the nation’s most rabid fan bases, and that’s just fine. They aren’t supposed to. Not yet.
Will that change in the next few years under Chris Holtmann? Almost certainly! The Buckeyes have a great 2018 class coming in, led by future fan favorite Luther Muhammad, and the class of 2019 in Ohio is as good as it’s been in years. Ohio State could be adding five-star Alonzo Gaffney anytime in the next few months. The Buckeyes are on an extremely positive trajectory, and that’s what matters the most at this point. Trust the process.
Whatever Ohio State does in the tournament, they’ll be doing it as a team that defied the odds, and as a team that is, at this point, playing with house money. If they fall to a top seed in the sweet sixteen, win the whole damn thing, or even if they fall in the first round to a mid-major, Buckeye fans should be proud of what this team accomplished, and excited for how bright the future is. No matter how mad they are right now about questionable calls, bad defense, or Penn State’s immensely stupid, unbeatable basketball team.