One could sense it, little by little, as the late-season wins kept coming. It was evident in the body language of Ohio State’s players, in the postgame smiles and even in the way they dealt with the occasional defeats.
There was a real belief among this group of Buckeyes: Something special was still in the offing that injuries, absences and slumps wouldn’t be able to touch. March was here, and Ohio State wanted to show the world what it was made of.
Now, the Buckeyes — like the rest of college basketball — can only wonder what could have been.
With the abrupt cancellation of the Big Ten and NCAA tournament on Thursday, their last chance to take the court together came in an 80-69 loss at Michigan State last Sunday. It wasn’t a game that defined them, and it wasn’t the final image they wanted to leave.
They get it. Public safety comes first. But that doesn’t make it easy to reconcile as we all take our first steps into the offseason and a world of unknowns.
“Overall I’m grateful for how it was all handled by the university and the Big Ten and NCAA, because I think it was the safest and most responsible decision,” coach Chris Holtmann told The Dispatch. “However, I’m really disappointed for our players, especially our seniors, who put so much into preparing for this month.
“We all know there are no guarantees in March, but we were all really excited about the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament.”
There could be reasons to feel otherwise. Not every season’s ending is a bad thing. Four years ago, the Buckeyes bowed out to Rutgers on the first day of the Big Ten tournament, were passed over by the NIT and drifted into an offseason that led to Holtmann replacing Thad Matta. Multiple players from that team have since said, both publicly and privately, that they were ready for that season to just be over.
Andre Wesson was a lightly used freshman on that team. This season, he was a team captain, a primary contributor and the quiet heart of the Buckeyes while averaging a career-high 9.2 points per game. Inside the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Indianapolis on Thursday, he spoke with junior guard and fellow captain CJ Walker about the disappointment of the Big Ten tournament cancellation.
In that moment, there was still hope of participating in March Madness, and Walker was relishing it.
“You want to end the season the right way, which I feel like we could’ve done with this team,” he said. “We had a good February going into March, and I felt like we were playing really well. That’s what we were preparing for. You want to be champions this time of year.”
Help was on the way, too. Kyle Young, no longer in a walking boot, was expected to play 15-20 minutes in Thursday’s game against Purdue.
To be fair, winning a title in either tournament might have been a long shot. The Buckeyes were the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament and would have had to defeat a Spartans team that had mostly handled them earlier in the week and then likely face either Maryland or Penn State, two teams that had handed them double-digit road losses already this season, just to get to the title game. In the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State was widely projected as a No. 5 seed but had the potential to climb perhaps a seed line or two with a strong Big Ten tournament run.
Could any or all of that have happened? We’ll never know.
“It’s simply an unwritten story for all of us,” Holtmann said. “As a coaching staff, I think we are most disappointed we won’t get to coach this group any longer. Loved coaching them.”