LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ohio State cannot compare to Connecticut, winners of 109 consecutive games, but the Buckeyes don’t need to compare to the Huskies. Plenty of room remains at the table for programs looking to become something akin to UConn light — teams that consistently rank among the top five in the nation.
Ohio State could be one of those. One could make a strong argument that the Buckeyes should be one of those. Ohio is a rich recruiting state. The school offers first-rate facilities. And compared to the men’s game, where basketball at a “football school” often feels like an afterthought that proves detrimental to success at the highest level, the women’s game shares no similar stigma.
But then you see Ohio State get throttled by Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena on Friday night and it becomes clear that the Buckeyes still have a lot of work to do. A lot.
The Fighting Irish, a No. 1 seed that finished the regular season ranked No. 2 behind UConn in the Associated Press poll, showed the Buckeyes — by way of a 99-76 beatdown — that wanting to be one of the best teams in the country is significantly different than actually being one of the best.
Back up a minute. It was supposed to be different this season for the Buckeyes. They said so themselves. The team was more mature. The 16-point loss to Tennessee in last year’s Sweet 16 was a mere muddy memory.
A more complete program does not guarantee greater success, but everything pointed to Ohio State giving Notre Dame a game, especially since the Irish were without Brianna Turner, their leading scorer and rebounder who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a second-round win against Purdue.
Maybe Notre Dame was too tough to handle with Turner, but without her? The Buckeyes stood more than a slim chance to pull the upset.
It was close for a while. Ohio State trailed by eight points at halftime despite Notre Dame making 13 shots in a row over a 10-minute stretch of the first and second quarters. The Buckeyes cut the deficit to four with 7:23 left in the third quarter.
Then Notre Dame Notre Damed. And Ohio State Ohio Stated, which is to say the Irish showed they can play both offense and defense, while the Buckeyes opted to play just offense.
I asked a longtime OSU insider if the Buckeyes can ever enter the rarified air of teams like Notre Dame, Baylor and Stanford.
“If they play defense,” was the answer. “Notre Dame scored 99 points and still played defense.”
It will require more than just defense to join the ranks of the NCAA Tournament rich and famous. The Buckeyes need to begin winning these types of games. They have not advanced to the Elite Eight since 1993, when they reached the championship game.
“As we aspire to continue to grow the program (the way Notre Dame played) is what we want to look like in a game like this,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “I told the team afterwards, when I was an assistant at Notre Dame we lost in the Sweet 16 and lost in the Sweet 16, then won a national championship. A lot of this is stick to it, keep fighting and grinding and make sure we get better. And that stuff takes time.”
McGuff offered that “It’s (a challenge) jumping into that elite group at the top. Notre Dame, Baylor and UConn have been doing it for a long time. And they’re not going anywhere.”
Fine. But Ohio State can get closer to where those programs reside. This isn’t men’s basketball, where the best programs have been built over years, making it difficult for others to break through.
“We have to continue to evolve,” McGuff said. “Culturally, we’ve taken some steps, but we’re not where we want to be.”
It would be nice if evolution picked up the pace.