After stunning Oral Roberts loss, Ohio State abruptly faces the glare of the offseason
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The offseason arrived a lot quicker for the Ohio State men’s basketball team than just about anyone outside of the Oral Roberts program imagined.
The Buckeyes had left Columbus more than a week earlier, bound for first the Big Ten tournament and then March Madness.
Both events would be staged entirely in Indiana, primarily in Indianapolis, and Ohio State brought enough clothes, video games and card games to help pass the downtime during what was expected to be a deep run into the postseason.
Ohio State men's basketball:Kyle Young's absence felt strongly Ohio State in March Madness loss to Oral Roberts
Instead, the Buckeyes found themselves on the wrong side of history, bounced from the first round of the NCAA Tournament in only the ninth loss as a No. 2 seed against a No. 15 seed with a 75-72 overtime loss to the Golden Eagles.
A season filled with injuries and the anxiety of the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as on-court success that allowed OSU to soar to a No. 4 national ranking and make a case for a No. 1 seed — went down in flames.
If left coach Chris Holtmann to try and explain what went wrong while also reflecting on the year as a whole.
The exercise had him fighting tears.
“It’s a bitter, bitter end to a terrific season,” Holtmann said. “But we’ll own that, we’ll accept that, and, um …”
At that point, Holtmann paused for a full 10 seconds, searching for words.
“We’ll move forward,” he said.
Doing so will require some painful self-reflection on how a promising season came to this.
The Buckeyes finished the regular season with the No. 4 offense in the nation, enabling them to outscore the likes of Illinois and Iowa in thrilling, regular-season road wins, and sophomore E.J. Liddell and junior Duane Washington Jr. blossomed into all-league players in the process.
Defensively, though, Ohio State would finish 73rd nationally, and that would be a fatal flaw.
The lack of true size that helped create offensive mismatches also made for defensive liabilities, and unsurprisingly Holtmann said that end of the court would be his top focus in the offseason.
“That’s certainly going to be priority No. 1,” he said. “It’s been unlike teams that we’ve had. It got us today.”
It wasn’t just the defense, though, that led to doom against Oral Roberts.
An Ohio State team that entered the game shooting 76.3% from the free-throw line went just 9 for 18 (50%) in the loss. The Buckeyes were 5 for 23 (21.7%) from three-point range, their third-worst mark of the season.
Underscoring those shooting issues was the fact that, with Kyle Young unavailable due to a concussion, Seth Towns (knee and back) and Justice Sueing (groin) hobbled and Musa Jallow invisible on offense, the Golden Eagles were able to make life harder on the few remaining scoring options available for the Buckeyes.
And yet, they would have chances to win. Ohio State led by four with 2:34 left but couldn’t hold the lead, committing two turnovers, missing two field goals and the front end of a one-and-one to allow the Golden Eagles to force overtime. Oral Roberts never trailed after scoring the first five points of OT.
The Buckeyes have played with fire down the stretch throughout the season, and this time it ended their season.
“Listen, we all have to be responsible for not quite getting it done and it begins first and foremost with me,” Holtmann said. “You’re a (No.) 2 seed for a reason. By and large it was a special year with a conclusion that is one we’ve got to lean into. It’s incredibly disappointing.”
The game marked the end of CJ Walker’s time at Ohio State. He will pursue a professional career, but Young’s future status is unknown. He could return with the NCAA allowing all players, regardless of grade, an opportunity to add a year because of COVID.
“This is my last time putting on this Ohio State jersey,” Walker said. “I’m not going to let this define me, the Ohio State program or the future to come.”
There will be changes to the roster, and possibly among the staff, going forward. But those are all issues to be dealt with in the coming days and weeks. Friday night, there was just disappointment.
“I know our guys are hurting,” Holtmann said. “I think we all are.”