Preseason expectations for Ohio State’s men’s basketball team were about as low as they’ve ever been for the program.
The Buckeyes missed not only the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT last season. Even with the change at head coach from Thad Matta to Chris Holtmann and the addition of three new recruits, Ohio State was not counted on as a contender in the Big Ten.
That narrative is gone.
After Ohio State beat No. 1 Michigan State 80-64 Sunday, the questions turned to the postseason. Will Ohio State contend in the Big Ten tournament? Not only will it make the tournament, but what seed will it be when it gets there?
But Holtmann said after the game he will not look further ahead than Thursday. There will be no talk of postseason play in the locker room. Ohio State beat high-caliber opponents in recent seasons before and struggled shortly thereafter. It beat Michigan State at home last season and lost eight of its next 14 games to end the year.
“We could go in the tank here the next couple weeks. We certainly don’t want this moment to define us,” Holtmann said Sunday. “And we don’t want it to be the pinnacle of the season, as good as it is.”
The grounds for pessimistic preseason predictions were warranted. Ohio State finished last season with a 17-15 record (7-11 in the Big Ten), its worst record since a 14-16 showing during the 2003-04 campaign — the year before Matta was hired. There was no reason to believe Ohio State would be a Big Ten title contender.
“I think you only have to open a college basketball preseason magazine and read where we’re picked: 12, 13, 14, 11. It’s all over, but it’s near the bottom,” Holtmann told The Lantern Oct. 25.
“We’re not discarding this year as kind of a throw-away year in any way. We are pouring ourselves into this team and this year, and hope that it will pay dividends.”
This team is not last season’s Ohio State squad. At this point last season, the Buckeyes had an 11-7 record, were 1-4 in the Big Ten and had embarrassing losses to Florida Atlantic and Illinois.
This recent win for Ohio State is not necessarily a fluke. Though it did not win games against its previous three ranked opponents, it had not been upset by a heavy underdog and it was already 3-0 in the conference with wins against Michigan and Wisconsin.
Just as Matta turned that 2003-04 team around into a 20-12 record the next season in his first season of coaching, Holtmann is at the forefront of an unscheduled turnaround for the Buckeyes.
“I’m surprised. Coaches get surprised. I got surprised,” Holtmann said Sunday, referring to the speed of the turnaround his team appears to be taking.
Ohio State received the 29th-most points in the most recent Associated Press poll and is listed as the 33rd-best team in the nation by Ken Pomeroy, who projects the team will finish the year with a 22-9 record and 13-5 Big Ten record. Bates-Diop is now appearing to be a favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year and is in Pomeroy’s list of the top 10 best players in the nation.
The Buckeyes have only beat one team considered to be in the upper echelon of college basketball, and they are still not going to be viewed as a national title contender. But winning the conference is no longer out of the question, and neither is making the NCAA Tournament.
The script might not be entirely flipped on this Buckeye team, but no one is going to sleep on them anymore. Other teams will take notice, starting with Maryland at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said the Buckeyes need to be prepared. Speaking as someone at the helm of one of the top teams in the nation, he knows what comes with the low number next to his team’s name.
“This is what’s going to happen every night. It’ll happen to Ohio State. When you’re 15-2, 14-3, you know, 15-3, [the Buckeyes will] get ranked, and deservingly should be,” Izzo said Sunday. “You got to handle things a little differently because you’re going to get somebody else’s best shot.”