INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State men’s basketball team’s hopes of making the NCAA tournament seemed, at times this year, cautiously optimistic. At other points of the season, they seemed improbable. And now, after an 81-54 beatdown at the hands of Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, they are all but done for.
OSU (20-13, 11-7) has the name recognition, conference competitiveness and record fit to appear on paper as a solid bet to make the 68-team NCAA tournament field. And yet, as OSU coach Thad Matta spoke to the media after the loss to the Spartans, there was no question that he knew the tournament would be lacking scarlet and gray this season.
Despite the positive qualities the Buckeyes have on their résumé, earning a spot in the tournament was always an uphill battle. With just two wins against teams placed in the top 50 of the RPI and a marginal grade in the eye test, fans and analysts alike could acknowledge that the Buckeyes would have to do more to get off the bubble and into the tournament.
They got that chance to turn some heads three times in the last few weeks against a Michigan State team that Matta said he thinks is a national title favorite. But it was three up, three down on those attempts, as OSU was crushed in each of the contests.
So without a spot in March Madness lined up for them for the first time since 2008, what happens next for the Buckeyes? It appears to be an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament.
Matta is no stranger to the NIT, though he hasn’t been face-to-face with it since that 2008 season. That year, OSU, one year removed from a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, won its five NIT games to capture the secondary crown.
Matta said rather than being embarrassed of the drop in competition from the year prior, he welcome the lessons from a postseason run and hoped his players this season will get the chance to do the same.
“The biggest difference with that (2008) team was we had a few seniors … but there were also a lot of freshmen, and I think it paid dividends for them,” Matta said.
While coaches and players do not enter a program like OSU with dreams of hoisting the NIT trophy, redshirt sophomore Kam Williams said the only thing on the team’s mind is going to be taking care of business, rather than fretting about what could have been.
“We’re just going to prepare for whatever comes next,” the guard said. “Whoever we play next, we’re just going to prepare for them, and hopefully we get a better result.”
The Buckeyes, with six freshmen, four sophomores, one junior and not a single senior, are a work in progress and have been throughout the year. For that reason, Matta said he will welcome any opportunity to get more experience with open arms.
“We need practice, we need as much as we can get, there’s no question about it,” he said.
So while OSU has not missed the tournament in eight years and came into the 2015-16 season with no intentions of breaking that streak, Matta said there are still positives to be drawn, gains to be had. It all depends on how much his team wants to embrace the opportunities.
“You can’t put your head down, you have to continue to play. And that’s maturity,” he said.
OSU will learn its postseason opponent on the NIT selection show, which is scheduled to begin on Sunday at 8:30 p.m.