The autopsy reports are in. The Ohio State men’s basketball team died from natural causes. Pretty peaceful ending, all things considered. The OSU women? Not so much.
The men did their best, putting up a strong fight before time caught up and terminated a season that was supposed to have expired much sooner. Could they have advanced to the Sweet 16? Sure, but that would have been like living to 90 — possible, but against the odds. Reaching the Elite Eight? We’re talking Kirk Douglas territory.
The Buckeyes were good enough that, if presented a perfect matchup, they might have made things interesting in an NCAA Tournament full of surprises. But ultimately the overachievers played three of a kind when a full house is required to win the pot in March.
The men deserve a pass. Picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten by a certain writer — ahem — who has been accused of not being able to count to 10, the Buckeyes finished second in the conference, won their first game in the NCAA Tournament and had Gonzaga on the ropes — up by five with 6:02 remaining — before the Bulldogs used an 11-0 run to win the second-round game in Boise, Idaho, 90-84.
The postmortem on the Ohio State women is more alarming. The Buckeyes expired well before their time, losing to Central Michigan at home, 95-78, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The brutal ending required a closed casket, similar to blowout losses in the Sweet 16 in each of the previous two seasons. Two years ago Tennessee took it to the Buckeyes 78-62; last year, it was Notre Dame pounding them 99-76.
In total, that’s three consecutive seasons of finishing like a fish flopping on the dock, gasping for air.
The loss to Central Michigan was particularly distressing to fans because the Chippewas were a No. 11 seed and Ohio State a No. 3. But these things happen. True, the Buckeyes have a history of losing to lower seeds, having lost such games in 2003, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’10 and ’12 — all under former coach Jim Foster, who was fired after the 2013 season largely because the Buckeyes underperformed in the NCAA Tournament.
But another concern is that since 1996 Ohio State has defeated a higher seed in the tournament only twice in nine meetings. So not only have the Buckeyes underachieved against teams they were supposed to defeat, seldom have they overachieved against better competition.
Difficult to explain? Yes and no. Foster is a good coach. The Buckeyes won or shared the Big Ten title outright six straight seasons, from 2004-05 to 2009-10. Then things turned stale. See ya.
Enter Kevin McGuff, who is 123-51 at Ohio State with four consecutive NCAA appearances and two Big Ten championships. He also coached Xavier into the Elite Eight in 2010.
The credentials are there, but something is missing. Defense. The Buckeyes too often treat defense as an option. It could be that senior Kelsey Mitchell — the No. 2 all-time scorer among NCAA women — served as a security blanket that falsely made teammates feel safe from having to get after it on both ends of the floor.
There is an undercurrent of opinion that the Buckeyes, in two or three years, will be a more complete product without Mitchell. But can McGuff coach them up enough to go deeper into the NCAA pool? A fair question with no certain answer. Or it could be that Mitchell made McGuff look good, that without her things would have been especially grim?
Regardless, the finish line arrived too quickly. The concern is real. Is the women’s program?