Buckeyes need to work on their moves to keep dancing in future NCAA Tournaments
An enjoyable dance in March involves a choreographed routine, one that requires smooth moves, great stamina and a cast of participants willing to hustle.
In recent years, however, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has found itself heading home from the NCAA’s Big Dance before it even gets to show its jazz hands.
Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Oral Roberts put the Buckeyes in some undesirable company. The ninth team to suffer a loss to a No. 15 seed as a No. 2 seed, the Buckeyes failed to advance out of the first weekend of the tournament for the eighth straight season.
They were suddenly plunged into the offseason after an unprecedented campaign. The highs were thrilling. Wins at Illinois and Iowa portended a special season in the making, and a home loss to Michigan was generally accepted to have been the game of the regular season.
In the end, the bottom line included a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten, an overtime loss in the conference tournament title game and an early exit from March Madness.
On the team bus headed back to Indianapolis following the loss to the Golden Eagles at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, coach Chris Holtmann said NCAA Tournament success is the next necessary goal for the program as he approaches his fifth season.
“Obviously that’s the next step for us, there’s no question, finding a way to get to the second weekend,” he said. “I understand that’s where we need to be moving forward. We certainly thought we had a great chance last year (and) this year. We didn’t get it done this year.”
The cancellation of the 2020 tournament due to COVID affected each team differently. Dayton’s chance at a generational run at a national title was squashed. Indiana, which recently fired coach Archie Miller after four years, was a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, a development that might have kept Miller at the helm.
For Ohio State, statistics suggest the 2019-20 Buckeyes might have had a deep tournament run. They finished among the top 20 teams nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, making them the 29th team do to so during the previous five years. Of those, 24 reached at least the Sweet Sixteen. Just one fell in its first-round game, and that was Purdue in 2016 when the Boilermakers dropped an 85-83 double-overtime loss to Arkansas Little Rock.
But numbers don’t completely tell the story, as this year’s season-ending loss to the Golden Eagles proves. Given that this year’s team finished fourth in offensive efficiency and 75th in defense, it’s fair to argue that last year’s team, which likely would have been a No. 4 or 5 seed, was better positioned for a run than its 2020-21 version.
It’s also true that, relative to expectations, Holtmann’s first two teams overachieved. In 2017-18, he inherited a program that hadn’t made the tournament the previous two seasons, came within a game of a Big Ten title and won a first-round game as a No. 5 seed.
The following year, the Buckeyes claimed one of the final at-large bids for the tournament and, as a No. 11 seed, scored a first-round upset win. Both forays into March ended with second-round losses to higher-seeded teams.
That’s what makes this punch land differently.
“This has not happened to us (before),” Holtmann said. “There were a lot of really important strides and big moments (this year). This is incredibly disappointing. Right now, we’ve got to lean into this disappointment and embrace it for what it is and figure out how we can grow moving forward.”
That will surely involve focusing on reaching the first Sweet Sixteen for the program since 2013. It’s a plateau Holtmann has experienced once in his seven years between Ohio State and Butler, and that came in 2017 when the Bulldogs earned a No. 4 seed and won two games before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina in a regional semifinal.
Having played his final game for the Buckeyes, senior guard CJ Walker said better things are on the way — for everyone.
“I’m not going to let this define me, the Ohio State program or the future to come,” he said.
Next year, they’ll get a chance to prove that.