Wednesday, Jul 18, 2018
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Two years later, OSU exodus reverberates

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    Ohio State guard Kam Williams celebrates with teammates during Thursday's NCAA Tournament win against South Dakota State on Thursday.

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    Daniel Giddens, left, played only one season at Ohio State, but since has found success at Alabama.

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    Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes overcame long odds and made the NCAA tournament.

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    Mickey Mitchell, left, is now a rotation player at Arizona State.

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On the day Ohio State signed the class that was supposed to bring its men’s basketball program back to Final Four contention, then-Buckeyes coach Thad Matta beamed.

OSU’s 2015 signees ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth in the country according to 247Sports.com, a collection of five different four-star players who many in the basketball world saw as an instant boost for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State recruited nationally and did it well, signing four highly coveted players from out of state — Jaquan Lyle, Mickey Mitchell, Daniel Giddens, and Austin Grandstaff — as well as A.J. Harris from Dayton.

“These were the guys we targeted, and we said if we get them, we’re going to be happy,” Matta said then.

What happened during the next two years rippled throughout the college game, and directly impacted five programs that qualified for this year’s NCAA tournament.

That class ushered in change at Ohio State, but of a different variety than expected.

None of the five remain at OSU, yet a year after the last of them left Columbus, the school, and most of the players, ended up happy without each other.

The players

Almost from the start, something was amiss at Ohio State.

In November, the Buckeyes lost back-to-back home games against Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech, then followed them up by losing to Memphis and Virginia.

After a 20-point drubbing at UConn, the Buckeyes finally found their footing, defeating Kentucky and starting 3-0 in the Big Ten as part of a seven-game winning streak. It didn’t last. The Buckeyes were up and down all year, finishing the regular season with 19 wins and bowing out of the Big Ten tournament with a third blowout loss to Michigan State.

By the end of season, it was apparent to Matta and eventually the players the marriage wasn’t going to last. Later that summer at a charity golf tournament, Matta recounted the team’s final game — an NIT loss at Florida — during which he told some of his heralded freshmen “some of you are going to transfer.”

“You don't know it yet, but whatever you do, don't come see me,” Matta said then. “Just shoot me a text, because I'm tired of looking at you. And we got rid of some guys that we needed to get rid of. We got rid of problems, but we kept solutions."

Surely enough, Matta was correct about players leaving.

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Daniel Giddens, left, played only one season at Ohio State, but since has found success at Alabama.

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Grandstaff already was long gone, having transferred in December after being dissatisfied with his playing time. In March, Giddens, Mitchell, and Harris all followed suit and left.

Lyle quit the team in April, 2017, and since has transferred to New Mexico.

For various reasons, Ohio State and the class of 2015 wasn’t meant to be.

“Really, it's all about the fit,” Giddens said this week. “No discredit to Ohio State at all, we just had to go to different places.”

Ohio State

The 2015 class’ brief and rocky stay in Columbus was the beginning of the end for Matta at OSU. The exodus included what was supposed to become Ohio State’s future, and without those players — plus a season-ending injury to Keita Bates-Diop — the 2016-17 season was a bigger struggle than the previous year.

The Buckeyes finished 7-11 the Big Ten, failed to win 20 games for the first time in Matta’s tenure, and ended their season with a humiliating loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten tournament. Ohio State missed not only the NCAA tournament, but also the 32-team NIT.

In June, 2017, OSU fired Matta, the program’s winningest coach and a person almost universally respected in coaching circles and by former players. Director of athletics Gene Smith said he thought the “parting of ways” was necessary, but it was nonetheless a gamble.

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Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes overcame long odds and made the NCAA tournament.

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OSU hired Chris Holtmann from Butler, a move that paid off in the first year, after which Holtmann will be in the running for the national coach of the year honors. With expectations at OSU at their lowest in years, the Buckeyes instead won 24 games, finished second in the Big Ten, and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Obviously, we understood there were relatively low expectations for us early,” Holtmann said this week. “Our guys answered the bell and put us in a position to do this and hopefully we can make the most of it.”

Against every reasonable preseason projection, the Buckeyes are in the field of 32, and will play Gonzaga, last year’s national runner-up, on Saturday for a place in the Sweet 16.

Butler

When Holtmann left Butler, the Bulldogs had to move quickly. The change took place in June, outside of the normal hiring season for college basketball.

The Bulldogs went after and eventually hired alumnus LaVall Jordan, who was the coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It was not the first coaching change for the Bulldogs’ seniors, who saw their entire coaching staff go to Ohio State before this season.

“It wasn't something that we didn't already go through, so we knew we still had our teammates to count on to be there regardless of who the coach was, the program was still going to run the same way,” senior Tyler Wideman said.

Luckily for Jordan, the program had a trip to Spain planned for last summer, which allowed the new staff valuable time with its new roster.

“There was ample amount of time to get to know guys one-on-one, listen to hear them talk and hear their stories and backgrounds, what led them to choose Butler and their goals, and things like that,” Jordan said. “So that was really important, I thought, for our staff. It just felt like the right time.”

Like the Buckeyes, Butler also made the NCAA tournament in its first year with a new coach, winning 20 games in a deep Big East and earning a No. 10 seed.

New beginnings

On varying, roundabout paths, the OSU trio that transferred out together in March, 2016 all made the NCAA tournament this season. Giddens appeared in 34 games for No. 9 seed Alabama, which advanced to the second round Thursday. Mitchell averaged 7.1 points for 11th-seeded Arizona State, and Harris started every game for New Mexico State, a No. 12 seed that won the Western Athletic Conference.

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Mickey Mitchell, left, is now a rotation player at Arizona State.

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Harris, the Dayton native, was in attendance to root on Mitchell in the Sun Devils’ First Four loss Wednesday to Syracuse, then jumped on a plane to San Diego for the Aggies’ first-round game against Clemson on Friday.

Lyle, now at New Mexico, tweeted his fondness for his former OSU teammates this week, and Giddens said the group has been keeping an eye on each other and Ohio State.

“The seniors, Keita, Kam [Williams], Jae’Sean [Tate], [I’m] definitely happy for them,” Giddens said. “They've been through a lot up there, a lot of perseverance. Keita's game has taken off to a whole other level and I'm just really happy for them."

This is far from the March anyone in Columbus envisioned in summer 2015.

But in a strange way, things seemed to work out for Ohio State, and for the players who transferred elsewhere.

“We all try to talk to each other as much as we can if we get the time. We're all doing pretty good,” Giddens said. “I know Mickey and A.J. [made] the tournament as well, so I'm happy for them.

“I'm happy everyone's doing well in their own ways."

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz.

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