COLUMBUS — Even coach Thad Matta has trouble explaining why his talented Ohio State players weren’t ready to perform with the same effort in every game this season.
When he faced the media at times after tough losses, the affable Matta looked uncharacteristically downtrodden, befuddled even.
“I don’t know,” Matta said when asked why his players’ heads weren’t in the game in an opening-round loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament. “Don’t know.”
That game ended up being the last in a disappointing season as Ohio State was shut out of even the NIT.
Matta endured the worst season in his 17 years as a head coach, winning fewer than 20 games for the first time and failing to take an eligible team to the postseason. The Buckeyes finished 17-15 — their second consecutive underachieving season following seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Matta acknowledged it was one of the toughest times of his career.
“Just from the daily battles that we’ve had just in terms of getting guys ready to play, that sort of thing,” he said.
Before the season, four of the five freshmen from the 2015 class transferred. The loss of one of the team’s best players, 6-foot-7 forward Keita Bates-Diop, to a leg injury in early January set the tone for the up-and-down Big Ten stretch. Ohio State lost its first four Big Ten games and finished with a 7-11 conference record.
The Buckeyes were wildly inconsistent, and there was no one player to lean on when the going got tough.
For instance, the Buckeyes shot 50 percent from the floor and played outstanding defense in a 10-point signature win over then-No. 16 Wisconsin on Feb. 23. Nine days later in the regular-season finale, the Buckeyes scored 92 points but allowed a less-talented Indiana team to score 96. The 66-57 loss to 14th-seeded Rutgers in the first round of the conference tournament was ugly.
The players, too, recognized there was dysfunction.
“We all kind of need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: ‘Do we actually care about this program, this university, the fans and each other?’ Me included,” sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle said. “I feel like at times we don’t play with the heart and passion like we should. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
In a place where fans are used to winning, there was plenty of consternation and hand-wringing among the Ohio State faithful this year, many calling for an end to the Matta era. That led athletic director Gene Smith to issue a statement expressing confidence in his coach.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we have to do stuff like that,” Matta said of the statement. “Gene and I met a couple weeks ago. It’s amazing what people do nowadays. This is a very fickle business that we’re in. Unless you’re intimately involved on a day-to-day basis, people choose the negative side of things. It’s what they do.”
The core of the team will be back. The lone departing senior is Marc Loving (12.3 points per game). He was the second-leading scorer but never lived up to his promise coming out of high school.
Top scorer Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 points) and fellow starter Lyle (11.4 points) will return. Others who saw significant minutes and showed flashes of brilliance — Micah Potter, Kam Williams, C.J. Jackson and Andre Wesson — also will be back. Matta has signed two highly regarded recruits, including 6-foot-9 center Kaleb Wesson, a hometown hero from the Columbus suburb of Westerville. Bates-Diop will be returning, although starting center Trevor Thompson (10.6 points, 9.2 rebounds) may leave for the NBA Draft.
“I’ve got to look at how we can reach a group of guys better,” Matta said. “Change is hard, but it can be done. Our mental approach to things on a daily basis has got to get better.”