With the Buckeyes postseason fate finally determined, Ohio State and Thad Matta were finally faced with the harsh reality that the 2015-16 season has been a disappointment.
When Ohio State was bounced from the Big Ten Tournament tournament by Michigan State Friday, its third embarrassing loss to the Spartans in just over three weeks, the players were finally willing to acknowledge what had been becoming more and more obvious as the season unfolded. For the first time in eight years Ohio State was not worthy of its goal, not worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth.
“Honestly, no,” point guard JaQuan Lyle said when asked if the Buckeyes deserved a spot in the NCAA Tournament. “We had those losses at the beginning of the season and they came back and bit us. It’s just how it goes and you have to learn from it.
“It hurts, but I mean, at the beginning of the year no one expected us to even get 20 wins. So I wouldn’t trade this season for nothing, I just wish that we would have learned from our mistakes early in the year and had a better outcome.”
The Buckeyes (20-13) will be playing this postseason, earning a No. 3 seed in the NIT and a first-round matchup against No. 6 Akron. The fact that Ohio State was judged as at best the ninth-best team in the 32-team NIT shows how far it was from the NCAA Tournament.
As Lyle mentioned, three early losses cost the Buckeyes, but really they just set the tone for the season. Ohio State dropped games to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis in the nonconference, all schools ranked outside of the RPI top 100, and posted a 2-10 record against the RPI top 50 on its way to one of the worst seasons in the Thad Matta era.
The Buckeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten at the end of the 2013-14 season, sixth last season and seventh this year. Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said he knows that trend needs to be reversed.
“I think first and foremost this team that we have has got to continue to mature,” he said. “I think this has been a good learning experience for these guys if they’re willing to learn in terms of all the little things that go into a college basketball season. I think that’s something, so much of college basketball to me is the right mindset, the approach that you take every single day in terms of getting better. That’ll be one of the big challenges.”
The relegation to the NIT snaps a seven-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, the seventh longest active streak nationally entering the season.
The last and only time that Matta has led a team in the NIT the Buckeyes on the 2008 title and the coach said that the young players on that roster certainly benefited from the experience. That team, however, was one of the first four teams left off the NCAA bracket and earned a one-seed in the NIT. This year the path to the secondary championship will be more challenging.
With such a young roster the future of the program could yet be bright and Matta said he expects Ohio State to return to the days of consistently making the Sweet 16 and challenging for more. It all comes down to how the freshmen and sophomores on the roster develop, something that Matta must emphasize but true development can only come when a player is receptive to it, the coach said.
“I think there’s a certain sense of responsibility on each guys’ part to sort of self-analyze and look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, what can I do better? What do I need to do better?’ And have humility,” Matta said. “Humility is defined as knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I think from that perspective, hopefully this team will grow in the right direction.”
That growth starts with the 2016 NIT.