The Ohio State Buckeyes — without Jae’Sean Tate — were no match for the Michigan State Spartans on Tuesday night.
The loss was significant in itself, but the surrounding details made it that much tougher to absorb.
First, the Buckeyes took the court knowing that Tate, one of their core players, would miss the rest of the season. That’s a deflating reality to carry into competition against an excellent opponent which has regained its stride after a rough month of January. Michigan State is steaming to the top tier of the Big Ten standings and a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Even with Tate, taking down Tom Izzo’s athletes would have been a tall order for Ohio State. Losing a vital — central — performer had to hurt very deeply for the Buckeyes.
Second — on a larger level — Ohio State lost a chance to string together consecutive home wins over highly-rated opponents. The Buckeyes can still beat Iowa in their home finale this weekend, but even if they do, they’ll be short of what they need to make the NCAA tournament. Tuesday’s loss to Michigan State felt like a death blow not because of the loss in isolation, but because of the inability to stack together triumphs over MSU and Iowa. Ohio State needed that kind of one-two punch to make a serious run at the Dance after feasting on the Big Ten’s lesser lights.
It’s a grim yet lingering reality: Coach Thad Matta’s run of seven straight NCAA tournaments will not likely extend to eight.
The best way to respond to such a moment is to appreciate what the Buckeyes have done… and to note how remarkable it is that some programs manage to soar even higher.
Thad Matta is not a good coach… he’s a GREAT coach.
Matta won an NCAA tournament game at Butler before better-known successors took the Bulldogs deeper into the Dance. He took Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2004 before moving within the state of Ohio to land in Columbus. Starting with the 2006 season, Ohio State has reached nine of 10 NCAA tournaments. Matta has reached two Final Fours — as many as Bill Self of Kansas — and contested one national championship game. Ohio State has been a top-two NCAA tournament seed six times over the past 10 years. The Buckeyes have won four Big Ten Tournament championships. That body of work easily exceeds what most programs accomplish in twice or three times as many years. Matta has mattered to Ohio State, no matter what the critics on the margins might say.
Yes, Matta has endured several stinging defeats in March over the years — stinging not just because of the pain of elimination itself, but because Ohio State was in such a good position to advance in the brackets and reach the Final Four. OSU lost as a 2 seed to seventh-seeded Georgetown in 2006. The Buckeyes lost as a 2 to sixth-seeded Tennessee in 2010. As a 1 seed, Ohio State lost to No. 4 Kentucky in the 2011 Sweet 16, forever known as the night William Buford shot the Buckeyes out of the tournament. In 2013, OSU might have suffered its most excruciating loss of all under Matta. The Bucks, as a 2 seed, fell to ninth-seeded Wichita State in the Elite Eight. Matta’s glittering track record is accompanied by some profound failures.
Yet, what coach hasn’t suffered a lot of defeats from a position of strength in March? John Wooden is the exception which proves the rule. Pretty much every other coach has endured multiple gut-punch moments in March — not merely losses, but losses with elite teams when everything was supposed to come together.
Ripping Matta isn’t the right response in the wake of this down season. One should merely marvel at the other programs which have managed to stay on the Dance floor without interruption for stretches far longer than Ohio State’s run of seven seasons.
Gonzaga is something of an exception in this portrait of high-level college basketball longevity. The Zags’ run of 17 straight NCAA tournaments — very much on the line at the upcoming WCC Tournament — was built with a lot of hard work. That said, Gonzaga often had to play only two games in the WCC Tournament. More recently, the WCC eliminated the quarterfinal bye for the top two seeds, making Gonzaga’s more recent March appearances a little more impressive.
Every other school with an NCAA tournament streak of 15 or more seasons is a power-conference school. North Carolina leads the list with 27. UCLA is tenth with 15. In between, Kansas (active), Arizona, Duke (active), Indiana, Michigan State (active), Kentucky, and Wisconsin (active) have managed to stay out of the NIT, CBI, or the premature end of a season for at least one and a half decades, without a single blemish.
It gives one pause.
Kentucky fell to the NIT in 2013. Arizona crumbled at the end of Lute Olson’s tenure before Sean Miller came in to rebuild a powerhouse. Indiana really hasn’t been the same since the early 1990s. Wisconsin was a basketball nobody before Dick Bennett arrived and set the table for Bo Ryan. UCLA is going to fall short of the Dance this season, unless it wins the Pac-12 Tournament. Staying tournament worthy, year after year after year, isn’t easy — not even for the blueblood programs. A bad cycle or a single season which falls through the cracks engulf a lot of distinguished programs at some point.
Ohio State’s failure to make the 2016 NCAA Tournament should not be seen as cause for panic or upheaval. At this point, it’s merely a product of a fragile sport — and the departure of D’Angelo Russell — taking a toll on a program that should be ready to rock next November.