For all but the strongest college sports programs, transition years are inevitable for one simple reason: most schools can't pull in the same exceptional talent every year. Ergo, when notable players leave, the guys left behind just aren't as good, most of the time.
Despite losing Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross from last year's team, that feels like a thin excuse for OSU. Thad Matta has never struggled to land immensely talented players while in Columbus, and this year was no exception, as 5-star All-Everything supercroot D'Angelo Russell led a packed freshman class to join a senior-heavy group of holdovers. How did the retooling go?
Prologue: A Non-Con Not to Forget, But Definitely Not to Remember
On paper, 11-2 is a respectable non-conference mark. 11-2 indicates your team was challenged, but not too much, and should have learned some things about itself going into the conference season. But those are not the things that 11-2 meant for this OSU team because of the hilariously weak schedule they wrote for themselves outside of two ACC heavies.
Those would be the losses, of course, to Louisville and North Carolina. But picking through the wins, it's hard to find anything interesting among the pile of decapitated bodies. Colgate, I feel like that's a name I've heard before. Eesh, a 58-point win over Sacred Heart. Oh, hey, Marquette, that's- oops, never mind, they had 13 wins this year playing in the reanimated golem of the Big East.
So...yeah. A slew of weakling slaughterings, accompanied by two respectable losses to the only two respectable teams they played. Healthy respect for the talent on OSU's roster gave them a #20 ranking to start the season, and they meandered around in the teens for the duration of the non-con. The tandem of D'Angelo Russell and Marc Loving appeared to provide an answer to that perennial Buckeye hoops question: where is the scoring going to come from? There were also enough secondary options to assume that, on any given night, this team could cobble enough together to match its still-strong defense, and outside of clearly-dominant Wisconsin, the race for 2nd in the B1G appeared to be wide open heading into conference play.
Conference Act the First: Aaron White is a Big Meanie and Turtle Soup
There's an argument to be made that OSU was a major beneficiary of the schedules this year; their single-play opponents included Wisconsin, Maryland, and MSU, and of those, only MSU was a road game. They also opened with a talented but mercurial Iowa squad which had suffered deflating losses to both Iowa State and Northern Iowa late in the non-con schedule. In fact, OSU played both of their matchups with Iowa within the first 6 games of the conference schedule. They could not, however, exploit Iowa's early-season struggles, and dropped both matchups with the Hawkeyes, yielding 40 combined points to senior Aaron White.
OSU's early conference slate also featured a home-and-home split with Indiana, blowout wins over Illinois and Michigan, and road escapes over Minnesota and Northwestern.
The marquee matchup of OSU's first half of the conference season was their sole date with Maryland. The Terps featured Melo Trimble, the only freshman who might give Russell competition for the title of the B1G's best newcomer. Moreover, the Terps as a team had already proven themselves well-prepared for play in the B1G, off to a 6-2 conference start. OSU's spotty season to that point would not have suggested the beatdown that was to come, but come it did. OSU played its best game of the season and smashed Maryland by 24, pouring in 46 points in the second half. Russell gave a virtuoso performance with an 18-14-6-2-0 (points-rebounds-assists-steals-turnovers) line in 34 minutes while also turning the screws on Trimble, who sputtered out 3 points on 8 shots.
So at this point, everything's coming up Buckeye: although they're still looking up at Wisconsin in the conference, they're firmly on track for the tournament and they have a developing supporting cast around a bona fide superstar. What could go wrong?
Conference Act the Second: Loving Suspension
Simple, really: between the Maryland and Purdue games, Marc Loving did something to get himself suspended indefinitely, and even when he returned, the team chemistry just didn't look the same. Suddenly lacking a consistent 3-point threat other than Russell, OSU's sizzling offense cooled. Their season-long habit of digging themselves into deep first-half holes became much more difficult to overcome without Loving's scoring punch, best-evidenced in their first game without him: against Purdue, OSU was 4-15 from deep in a 2-point loss.
The Buckeyes did tag Purdue back in the rematch, and still easily handled the conference's dregs, beating Rutgers by 19, Nebraska by 24, and Penn State by 10 and 20. Loving's indefinite suspension turned out to be just 3 games. However, he remained in Matta's doghouse and was relegated to a bench role in which he did not flourish, failing to reach double-digit points again until the conference tournament.
Against the few tough teams left on the schedule, OSU generally couldn't produce. They lost a last-second heartbreaker to MSU, faceplanted against a wounded but feisty Michigan team, and in the last game of the regular season, they were disemboweled by the Badgers.
The story there seemed to be that OSU's offense became wildly inconsistent in the second half of the conference season; in all 4 losses (Purdue, Michigan, MSU, Wisconsin), they failed to reach 60 points, though they got to at least 75 in 3 of their 5 wins after the Maryland game. Russell could be counted on to show up and ball out every night; the team's success, though, turned on whether anyone else joined him. When some combination of Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, and Jae'Sean Tate produced, OSU looked good. When they didn't, the Buckeyes struggled.
Postseason: A Farewell to Russell
The BTT and NCAA Tournament were more of the same for OSU. Against Minnesota, Russell was dominant and received enough scoring support from Scott for the Buckeyes to advance. Against MSU, Russell and Scott weren't enough.
OSU drew VCU in the first round of the NCAAs, and the squads played one of the more exciting games of the tourney's first weekend. Again, Russell couldn't be stopped, cracking VCU's famed Havoc press with such ease that Shaka Smart abandoned the scheme. OSU prevailed in OT to draw Arizona in the Round of 32.
Against Arizona's deep, talented team, OSU deployed its seldom-used zone defense, daring Arizona to shoot over it...which they did, eventually. To Matta's credit, the zone kept Arizona's slashing ability at bay through the first half. But eventually, the Wildcats' shots started falling, and Russell finally failed to come through for OSU, hitting just 3 of 19 shots in a valiant attempt at hero-ball.
Looking forward, OSU will again undergo a dramatic retooling from this season to next. Russell, of course, is NBA-bound, and seniors Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and Anthony Lee depart as well. OSU does have promising pieces remaining on the roster- Jae'Sean Tate flashed at times, and if Loving can return to his early-season production, he could assume a primary scorers' role.
The problem is that Tate and Loving theoretically play the same position, and at the guard and post spots, OSU will rely heavily on newcomers. They do have a good incoming class on paper and Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson coming online, but ballhandling could be an adventure early in the season. Next year's roster, barring transfers in, will have only one junior (Loving) and no seniors. There will be talent, but to stay in the top half of the conference, those kids will have to grow up fast.