ANALYSIS: Big difference between Buckeye basketball squads is not hard to see

Point guard play separating Buckeye basketball squads over past decade

The second half of March is upon us, and one Ohio State basketball team is still practicing while the other has broken up for the season.

One already has a new trophy for the case, is looking forward to what could still happen this year and has a bright future.

The other’s dreams were dashed again after not really accomplishing anything, and its next steps are unknown.

If that feels familiar, well — it is.

The women’s basketball Buckeyes are in the Sweet 16 for the third time since 2016, and they have won the Big Ten regular season three times in that span (including this season).

The men have not made the Sweet 16 nor won the Big Ten in that span, but it wasn’t always this way.

A decade ago, Ohio State had the Big Ten’s model basketball programs.

From 2005-2012, the men and women combined for 11 conference titles — six straight at one point for the women and five overall for the men.

(In 2006, Ohio State became the first school to win both basketball championships and football in the same year, a feat it accomplished again the following season and three years later.)

They also knew success in March with the women making three Sweet 16s and the men getting beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament five times. (In this area, Jim Foster’s women’s side was somewhat of a disappointment while Thad Matta’s men made a pair of Final Fours and were national runners-up once.)

Before going any further, I realize these things are not exactly related.

One is capable of winning without the other following suit, and one losing won’t impact the other.

They have different coaches and players, and women’s basketball coaches don’t have to worry about losing their best players to the WNBA after only a year or two.

But both OSU teams enjoy access to the school’s vast resources, the same facilities, the same local population base from which to recruit and the same national brand to utilize.

They also both play under an administration that has demonstrated a desire to be more than OK at basketball.

Under athletics director Gene Smith’s watch, Foster was fired for not going farther in the NCAA Tournament. That was 2013.

Four years later, the university and Matta parted ways with the men’s team in a much steeper decline, having dropped in the Big Ten standings five seasons in a row before bottoming out at 10th in 2017.

What I always found interesting back in those glory days was both teams won with similar styles.

They were typically built around talented centers and point guards. Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. Jessica Davenport and Brandie Hoskins. Jamar Butler and Terence Dials. Jantel Lavender and Sammy Prahalis. Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger.

Of course there were other great players on those teams, most notably talented wings like Evan Turner and Tayler Hill, but the most important part of the winning formula was the same: Dominant bigs and heady, talented leaders with the ball in their hands.

Now, college basketball has evolved a lot since 2013. It’s become faster-paced and more skill- and shooting-oriented while the back-to-the-basket big is harder to find.

But the Ohio State women’s team has handled this transition much better than the men.

Of course, Kevin McGuff continuing Foster’s habit of recruiting and developing great point guards has helped.

One of McGuff’s first acts as head coach was to move Ameryst Alston to the point, and she responded with an All-Big Ten season.

Then he brought in Kelsey Mitchell, a McDonald’s All-American who became the No. 2 scorer in NCAA history.

While the shift in styles completely left Matta behind, Chris Holtmann has had success featuring multi-talented wings since replacing Matta as head coach in 2017-18.

That started with Keita Bates-Diop, who won Big Ten Player of the Year in Holtmann’s first season in Columbus, and continued the past two years with E.J. Liddell being named to the All-Big Ten first team.

But where are the point guards?

Holtmann signed four-star prospect DJ Carton in 2019, but he didn’t stick around long enough to prove to be the answer.

Meechie Johnson Jr. is on the roster for next year, but the four-star from Garfield Heights has yet to make a major impact after graduating from high school early and joining the 2020-21 team.

Otherwise, Holtmann has largely tried to do it with transfers, some of whom have done a commendable job but none who have come close to being Conley, Craft or one-year wonder D’Angelo Russell.

Perhaps help is on the way.

Bruce Thornton, a 6-1 senior from Alpharetta, Ga., is the No. 8 point guard in 247Sports Composite rankings for the 2022 class, and the Buckeye have a verbal commitment for 2023 from George Washington III of Louisville.

They are both four-star prospects per, and roster building for next season and beyond is surely not finished.

(Ohio State won’t be adding Centerville junior point guard Gabe Cupps, who has committed to Indiana, but the Buckeyes did make the top eight of Wayne standout Laurent Rice.)

Meanwhile, McGuff’s team won a share of the Big Ten regular season title despite losing point guard Madison Greene to a preseason knee injury.

The Buckeyes still had the conference’s best backcourt with first-team all-conference performers (and Ohio natives) Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell averaging 19.8 and 18.6 points per game, respectively. Sheldon led the team with 130 assists while Braxtin Miller, a senior from Alter High School, was second with 91.

Ohio State still has not made it back to the women’s Elite Eight since 1993, but the Buckeyes have a chance to change that Friday night when the No. 6 seed takes on No. 2 seed Texas in Spokane, Wash.

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