Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Season Obituaries: Ohio State

There have been curiously few recriminations following Ohio State’s defeat as the number one overall seed this year, especially when compared to Kansas’s loss to Northern Iowa one round earlier last season. Maybe that’s because Kentucky was such a good team—Kenpom, for example, says the Wildcats were much closer to a two-seed than the four-seed they were given. Maybe that’s because Ohio State was so dominant during the Big Ten season, and a conference championship heals most wounds. Maybe it’s because Ohio State isn’t all that far removed from their national runner-up 2006 season and so the sense of disappointment is not quite so severe.

Those are all plausible explanations, I think one works better: Ohio State’s dominance isn’t going to end any time soon. There was no urgency to this particular season like there was for Purdue fans. The Buckeyes lost the Big Ten Player of the Year and nevertheless went from sharing the Big Ten title to winning it outright, with a better conference record and an undefeated nonconference record. Ohio State will lose great players again before next season begins, and yet the Buckeyes will almost certainly be ranked in the top 5 before the season. Sure, the tournament results were the same this season as last: a disappointing exit to a lower seed in the Sweet Sixteen round. But so what? If you keep getting chances as one of the best teams in the nation, you’ll find your way through the tournament eventually.

I discussed in my Purdue obituary how the Big Ten basketball programs are not the kind that can hope for championship-level success every year. If there’s an exception, it is Ohio State. No one would have predicted this even six years ago. Michigan State won a national championship in 2000; Indiana was a perpetual powerhouse off a (somewhat fluky) championship game appearance in 2002); Illinois was laying waste to the conference in 2005. Amongst the teams that were down, Michigan had a better recent basketball history (national championship in 1989, plus the whole Fab 5 team), and Purdue was a perennially solid program for two decades before the temporary post-Keady letdown. Bo Ryan had already turned Wisconsin around by 2005 and seemed poised to take the next step. Even Iowa under Steve Alford was a plausible contender for next great Big Ten team. Ohio State was just a middling team on probation, with a successful-but-unproven mid-major coach, maybe no less likely than Iowa or Purdue to take the step towards national dominance, but certainly no more likely.

Fans can be fickle, but most Ohio State fans aren’t so fickle that they don’t appreciate the rarity of this kind of sudden extended success. They can also be confident that this success isn’t about to end, just as Duke fans don’t panic when they lose in the Sweet Sixteen round. There’s always next season, and not just in the existential sense; next season is another legitimate opportunity to win a national championship. Windows of opportunity are for other, lesser teams.

Ohio State is now an upper class program, and the upper class don’t have problems like you or me. Upper class individuals might be disappointed, even hurt, by a recession, but they (should) know that their wealth insulates them from the harms that others must endure. Upper class basketball programs suffer disappointing seasons that nonetheless outperform the vast majority of other teams, and fans of those programs know they’ll be back in the championship hunt the following year. The 2010–11 basketball season was nothing but paper losses; the wealth is still there.