In 2004 Thad Matta took over for Jim O'Brien as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Coming off of two disappointing seasons under O'Brien, Matta's first team didn't return to the NCAA Tournament (they were ineligible for the postseason) but they did show definite improvement. It didn't take long for Matta to return the Buckeyes to the top of the Big Ten, with his team falling in the title game in 2007. While the team had a disappointing rebuilding season the next year, the Buckeyes hadn't missed the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
Of course that was until this season, with Matta's team entering a rebuilding year in 2015 and struggling heavily thanks to a youthful and inexperienced roster. The up and down season was easily one of the most difficult years in quite some time for Ohio State fans, with the team never actually falling out of contention, yet incapable of getting over the hump. The frustrating back and forth throughout the season created a situation where there was at least some hope for a possible NCAA Tournament run, only for the team to fail time and time again when they had a chance to make some noise.
That leads us to the question of if the 2015-16 season was a success or failure for the Buckeyes, with the answer likely being somewhere in the middle.
Entering this season expectations for the Buckeyes were a bit all over the place. While the team had enjoyed an immense level of success under Matta, the end result of the 2014-15 team flaming out, especially considering some of the talent at hand, seemed to lower expectations that Matta could instantly lead this team back to the NCAA Tournament. Of course the 2014-15 team was hampered by a number of departures, including a suspect early departure from LaQuinton Ross, someone who would have had a huge year if he had stuck around.
That created the dilemma of how to evaluate Ohio State heading into the season and their overall potential. On one hand the team lost star D'Angelo Russell, the team's best player by far the previous season. Besides Russell leaving for the NBA, the team lost several major players due to graduation, including Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, and would have to rely on an abundance on youth. While relying on freshmen typically leads to growing pains, the Buckeyes did field a recruiting class that (per Rivals) included five-star JaQuan Lyle and four four-star recruits.
This led to the belief that the team would only go as far as the freshmen could carry them, with anything from a NIT birth to a potential at-large NCAA seed on the table.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes they got off to a pretty awful start and could never truly climb out of the hole they buried themselves in. Heading into the second weekend of the season no one expected a loss to Texas-Arlington, but upsets happen. Of course that was then followed that Tuesday with a loss to Louisiana Tech (also at home) and then an overtime loss to Memphis. While Ohio State fared considerably better at home against Virginia, they still lost and fell to 2-4. A few wins over cupcakes, teamed with a 20 point loss to Connecticut, didn't improve the perspective surrounding the Buckeyes. To further complicate things, freshman Austin Grandstaff decided to book it after ten games, showing that there was some legitimate issues in Columbus.
Just to keep things interesting, though, Ohio State decided to go and beat Kentucky on a neutral court and create enough hope that the team could possibly improve in conference play and possibly make a run at some point.
Another Rough Start in Conference Play
The Buckeyes didn't set the world on fire during the non-conference portion of their season and decided to do more of the same when it came to conference play. Their 6-5 start wasn't an absolute trainwreck on paper, though it was clearly carried by wins over Minnesota, Illinois (2x), Northwestern, Rutgers and Penn State. The five losses? 25 points at Indiana, 35 points at Maryland, 11 points at Purdue, 5 points versus Maryland and 11 at Wisconsin. Like mentioned above, though, the Buckeyes decided they wanted to keep things interesting and added a four game winning streak to hit 10 conference wins and remain (somewhat) alive for a NCAA Tournament bid.
The problem was breaking down those 10 conference wins, with nothing worthwhile outside of a home win against another bubble team in Michigan. They did manage enough to stay on the bubble, but then got blown out by Michigan State at home when they had a chance to finally get over the hump. After knocking off a top ten (at the time) Iowa program, they had a second crack at Michigan State...only to get beaten by 15 points. Entering Chicago the Buckeyes likely needed to reach the final on Sunday if they wanted an at-large bid and, once again, got blown out by Michigan State. In an 18 day span the Bucks got beaten by Michigan State three times by 19, 15 and 27 points respectively.
The close to the season had to have been disappointing for Ohio State fans, with the team having a chance to finally get over the hump, only to fall down three times in a row to Michigan State. That led to an inevitable NIT appearance and things didn't exactly fare much better there, either. While Matta's squad managed to avoid an upset in the first round, sneaking past Akron in overtime, Ohio State fell to Florida in the second round by eight points, with the loss widely being ignored as most basketball fans spent more time worrying about the actual Tournament games being played that day. It wasn't the end result Ohio State wanted, even if it was only the NIT, and was a lackluster close to a lackluster season in Columbus.
So...Success or Failure?
Like I mentioned up top, the answer to that question is likely somewhere in the middle. All things considered, Ohio State is a team that can easily be a NCAA Tournament any year, regardless of if they're rebuilding or not. While sustaining that level of success is difficult, several other Big Ten programs (Michigan State, Wisconsin) have found a way and Ohio State had a massively talented recruiting class to help cover their large list of departures. So the reality is any season that doesn't end in a tournament appearance really has to be considered a failure, at least on some level. Even more so when you look at the numbers and see Ohio State was 2-10 versus the top 50 this season, with nothing to really hang their head on besides a Kentucky win in December. The interesting thing, though, is if they had avoided that three game losing streak to Texas-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis, they still may have found a way to sneak into the tournament.
That being said, assuming the team returns it's core from this season, it should be assumed that Ohio State will only continue to improve and should be back in the thick of things in 2016-17. With a relatively thin recruiting class for 2016, though, the Buckeyes will need their underclassmen to continue to develop or things could get a bit tricky in Columbus. While this season was for the most part technically a failure, there were glimpses of potential that could materialize next season and lead to a much more promising season. So on that hand the season this year wasn't a complete failure as it showed plenty of talent to build on, the only question is if Ohio State can build from there as the teams numerous blowouts show that this was a very flawed program.
If Ohio State uses this season as a learning year and can build on it towards a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2017? Well then this season won't be that bad. If the Buckeyes repeat with another middling season next year then this season could be a potential sign that Matta's program is slipping and could put the program at a crossroads heading forward.