TULSA, Okla. — Enough was enough. In the middle of a reporter’s question, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann stopped the postgame interview outside the Buckeyes’ locker room to ask a staffer to place a towel at the base of a slamming door.
The irritating noise grated on Holtmann’s nerves in the moments after the Buckeyes’ 74-59 NCAA Tournament loss to Houston on Sunday night in the BOK Center.
Or maybe it was a reminder that a men’s basketball season that had opened with so much uncertainty had just closed for good?
It is a stretch to label this as a season of overachievement for OSU. Rather, it seemed more like one of impressive perseverance.
The Buckeyes finished tied for eighth in the Big Ten, right where the media picked them in the preseason. Many observers considered them as an NCAA Tournament bubble team to begin with, which ended up being the case.
Their best nonconference win came in the opener against Cincinnati, which lost to lower-seeded Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Even Ohio State’s 62-59 win against No. 6 seed Iowa State on Friday, while impressive, requires context. The Cyclones won the Big 12 tournament title, yes, but still finished 9-9 in their conference.
The positives? This season easily could have gone off the rails following a five-game losing streak — the longest since OSU lost 17 straight in 1997-98 — and nearly imploded when center Kaleb Wesson was suspended for three games, all losses, to close the regular season.
Instead, the Buckeyes regrouped, became even more connected — on the court and off — and played some of their best basketball the past three weeks.
“There was (so) much in this season, in terms of just stuff, that this team had to go through and deal with, so there were some lessons in grit and perseverance,” Holtmann said.
Going forward, those lessons must translate into a continuing maturing process not only for this year’s freshmen, but just as importantly for the Wesson brothers.
Andre Wesson will be a senior. Holtmann singled out the forward as a shining example of improvement through offseason dedication.
“All of our returners need to have the kind of offseason that a guy like Andre Wesson had, where he came back early and established himself as clearly a good player,” Holtmann said.
But the elder Wesson needs to continue to grow as a leader, as does Kaleb, who while improving as a player showed there is work to be done off the court.
“Younger guys have to step up. Now it’s our team,” Kaleb Wesson said. “We’re getting older and have to mature.”
The assumption is that Ohio State’s incoming recruiting class of five-star point guard DJ Carton, four-star small forward Alonzo Gaffney and four-star power forward EJ Liddell will immediately make next year’s team more dynamic and likely to improve on this season’s 20-15 record.
Add Florida State transfer CJ Walker, a point guard soon to be eligible, and advancing to the Sweet 16 or deeper is a lock, right?
Not automatically. Ohio State’s talent level will increase, but if the returning roster stagnates, don’t expect the Buckeyes to hang banners in 2019-20. I would anticipate some measure of improvement — the way 19-year-old sophomore Musa Jallow asserted himself in the two tournament games shows there is basketball skill beyond the gifted athleticism — but Holtmann correctly cautioned that teams holding steady actually are regressing.
That goes for coaches, too.
“The challenge for us is we have to find a way to be better in stretches in early conference, in January and February,” Holtmann said. “You’re going to take some hits, but looking back, that’s an area where as a coach I have to figure out how to get us better in those months.”
Holtmann can coach. He’ll figure it out. From there, it comes down to continued strong recruiting and getting players to buy into the kind of team-first approach that manifested over the past three weeks.
Buckeye Nation should expect bigger things next season. Just don’t think huge yet.