The Power of No Expectations
This evening, the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team will take the Value City Arena floor for the last time this season. It will be the last home game for seniors Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams as well as Keita Bates-Diop if he decides to test the NBA waters (subliminal message “please stay”). It will be the last home game of coach Chris Holtmann’s first year. And it will be the last home game of a season that, to be honest, about 90 percent of the city of Columbus had totally written off.
The story has been oft repeated: past disappointments; new coach hired late; committed players released to go to other schools; would-be returners taking off (and being let go); and questions about who would even fill out the roster. Projections had the Buckeyes as low as 11 or 12 in the Big Ten. When people said, “Do you think this team can make the tournament?” they were talking about the NIT.
From a personal point of view, the uncertainty manifested itself with repeated questions if I was going to re-up on my season tickets. For the last dozen years or so, attending games with friends and family has been a highlight of the battleship gray days of Columbus. I’m not saying I have to roll loose change to make the purchase, but it’s not an unsubstantial one either. I admit I gave pause, but in the end I decided to take the plunge. When asked why I would say, only half-jokingly, that I hoped the fan defections would allow me to get better seats and that “when everyone starts jumping on the bandwagon, I want to say I was there at the beginning.”
Well, the bandwagon pulled up a lot sooner than anyone (except perhaps announcer Dan Dakitch ) expected. Sure, there were a couple of tough losses early in the season, but those were quickly forgotten as this team now sits in the top four of the league and most likely will be the higher-seeded team in their first NCAA tournament team. There was the incredible comeback against Michigan and two dramatic upsets over Michigan State and Purdue. The Schott saw its first sell-out in years and, maybe more importantly, the student section has been filled and loud.
Here’s the thing, for me all the wins have been gravy. Yeah, the Ws are great, but this also is a fun team that is filled with interesting stories. They play hard and work as a team. There are the Wesson brothers, local kids playing together and following in the footsteps of their Buckeye father. There’s Musa Jallow, who may be the best athlete on the team despite the fact he should be planning for his high school prom. Andrew Dakich has been welcomed into the fold despite his school-up-north history. The scrappy, undersized Tate has put up incredible numbers while also becoming probably the team’s most beloved fan-favorite since Aaron Craft. And, of course, there is the emergence of Bates-Diop (“please stay”) as one of the country’s best players and also one of its best human beings. As he comes back from the serious leg injury that led to his red shirt last season, there have been as many feel good stories about him (like this and this) as there have been ways announcers have pronounced his name. (I swear I heard one call him “Beta Dates-Kiop.”)
The city’s collective blood-pressure would be much healthier if more fans looked for the stories behind the scoreboard. I remember falling into the trap somewhat during the 2006-’07 season as Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and company made it to the national championship game. There were a number of great moments that season: a game winner against Wisconsin and a last-second block against Tennessee. But with all the winning came a mixture of complacency and raised expectations. If the team won, well, that’s what they were supposed to do. If they lost, it was a gut punch. There literally was nowhere for the mood to go but down.
That is why this season has benefitted from the power of no expectations. The ups-and-downs are the nature of a college basketball season as teams juggle lineups, navigate injuries, evaluate strategies, deal with matchups, and set themselves up for post-season play. This flies in the face of the football fans for that handful of teams whose season is ruined with just one loss. To that end, I actually wonder how much the seemingly most fanatic OSU followers really appreciate or enjoy watching the sport – regardless of what it is – being played.
I’ll be in my seat tonight, sending off the seniors and rooting for another win. I’ll also be sure to take a second and appreciate what may not prove to be the most successful season I’ve seen, but certainly has been among the most memorable. I encourage other fans to do the same and be ready to come back next year and see how the next chapter of this story plays out (please come back Keita). But if they do, I hope they are behind me in line for tickets. After all, I was there this year.