Now that it’s been over a month since Ohio State’s historic NCAA Tournament loss, I’m hoping our very calm and rational fanbase will listen to this and at least consider what I’m about to say. Last month, the Ohio State men’s basketball team became just the ninth 2-seed ever to lose to a 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round. No, I will not try to defend the team or say this loss was justified in any way.
I will not dignify the “bad matchup” excuse, even if Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor were the highest-scoring duo in all of college basketball last season. The Abmas and Obanor duo was as great as advertised against the Buckeyes, scoring 59 points on a combined 19-45 shooting. However, we mustn’t forget that Oral Roberts was also the 219th-best defensive team in the country last season (according to KenPom), and that was while playing in the Summit League. Not the Big Ten, the Big 12, or the Pac-12, the Summit League! ORU was a bad defensive team, one that Ohio State should not have had any trouble scoring on in the closing minutes.
If you thought Ohio State’s defense was a shit sandwich last season (it was), I’ll provide some context here. The Buckeyes were No. 82 in defensive efficiency in all of college basketball. Oral Roberts was 137 spots below them. Ohio State should have scored on them at will. They did not. Ohio State had some embarrassing losses towards the end of Thad Matta’s tenure (UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech, etc.), but considering the stage they were on, this loss to Oral Roberts might be the worst loss in program history. If you told me it was, I wouldn’t argue with you.
I just wanted to get that out of the way first.
Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA are all blue-blood basketball programs whom we expect to dominate year in and year out, on the court and off. We expect them to field teams every single season that are capable of winning championships. We expect them to tangle with each other for five-star recruits, have them for one year, lose them to the NBA Draft, and then do it again the following year. We expect them to be stalwarts in the top-10 of the AP Poll every week. In other words, they are elite.
…but what about their football programs?
Here are the overall records for those four programs over the past four seasons, which is the same amount of time Chris Holtmann has been the Ohio State head coach. I also added any conference championships and bowl victories.
Quick Lane Bowl champs (2017)
Independence Bowl champs (2018)
Citrus Bowl champs (2018)
Belk Bowl champs (2019)
Gator Bowl champs (2020)
Military Bowl champs (2019)
Yes, football and basketball are completely different sports. Apples to oranges, if you will. But you don’t hear too much criticism towards the Kentucky or Duke football programs in the national media. They aren’t expected to compete for national championships every year because, well, they’re just not at that level. Nobody expects them to hang with the Alabamas, Ohio States, and Clemsons of the world. Duke, Carolina, and Kentucky football all seem to be on the up and up right now, so maybe some day they will be competing with the best for CFP appearances. I doubt it, but we’ll see.
So if UCLA and Duke’s football teams aren’t ripped to shreds for their recent mediocrity, why are fans so extremely critical of Ohio State basketball’s success they’ve experienced lately? I hate to break it to you, but Ohio State is not one of basketball’s “blue bloods.” The Buckeyes have won one (1) national championship in 123 years, and didn’t dominate on a consistent level (as a “blue blood” is expected to do) until Thad Matta took over in 2004. Matta — the greatest basketball coach in Ohio State history — went to nine NCAA Tournaments in 13 seasons, including two Final Fours and one National Championship game. But that was not the standard before Matta arrived. Ohio State was not, and is not, a basketball powerhouse.
Ohio State football is a completely different story, and college football is a completely different game. The margin for error in football is far smaller than it is in basketball. One loss could eliminate you from the College Football Playoff, which — rather than 64 — only includes four teams at the end of the season. Buckeye football is a way of life in Ohio, and the football team has pretty much set the standard that no CFP appearance means it is a failed season. For 95% of football programs, winning a conference championship and a bowl game is considered a winning season. Not in Columbus. At Ohio State, it’s championship or bust.
Far too often I sense that Ohio State fans carry over their expectations from football to basketball. Most recently, there’s been criticism that Holtmann and his coaching staff cannot recruit “any of the five-stars”, especially big men. It’s true that Ohio State has not locked up a four or five-star center since Holtmann came to Columbus. It’s also true that Kaleb Wesson was Ohio State’s center for three of Holtmann’s four seasons, therefore recruiting a center wasn’t priority number one until now.
Something else we tend to forget: five-stars don’t grow on trees. There’s a select few players who receive five stars, and many of those commit to the “blue blood” programs — which Ohio State is not. Chris Holtmann may never lock up a five-star center. Maybe he’ll get a four-star in the next recruiting cycle, who knows. But the mindset that Ohio State is a national powerhouse, and therefore should be in the mix for every top recruit unfortunately ends when the conversation shifts from football to basketball.
When Chris Holtmann took over the Ohio State basketball program in 2017, it was a mess. No NCAA Tournament for two straight seasons and also not ranked in the AP Poll at any point during those final two seasons under Matta. Holtmann came in that summer and took Ohio State back to the NCAA Tournament and won a tournament game for the first time in three years.
Since then, it’s been a consistent level of regular season success followed by mediocre results in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State still has not made it to the second weekend of the tournament (Sweet 16) in nine seasons. They have not won a conference championship in a decade. There’s still work to be done, and losing during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament year after year simply is not going to fly for much longer if Holtmann wants to reside in Columbus long-term.
This team is good, and the program is in a great spot. Their trajectory is upwards, and it’s looking like a sharp upward trajectory at that. But the basketball program should not need to keep pace with the football program. Like it or not, Ohio State is a football school, and Ohio is a football state. Ohio State is not and will not be the landing spot for many five-star recruits, and the Buckeyes won’t hang out in the top-five of the AP Poll every week like their football counterpart tends to do. That’s fine.
Ohio State fans have been blessed with a juggernaut of a football program and a damn good basketball program. The recent tournament losses and mediocrity hurt, but that’ll make it all the sweeter when this team finally breaks through.