Ohio State coach Thad Matta directs his team against Youngstown State during the second half on Dec. 20 in Columbus. ASSOCIATED PRESS
If Ohio State loses a basketball game in a half-empty mausoleum, does it make a sound?
We’re still waiting to hear.
And that’s the problem.
Just as alarming as the Buckeyes’ continued plunge into mediocrity is that nobody cares.
If you haven’t noticed, this is a program in crisis. Ohio State (10-6) is 0-3 in the Big Ten going on 0-6 — its next three opponents are tied atop the league — and on course for a fifth straight season of decline.
A hoops recession with no end in sight.
But, again, you may not have noticed. The only thing falling faster than the state’s once-powerful flagship team is fan interest. Ohio State announced a crowd of 13,221 for last week’s Big Ten home opener against Purdue, but it could have curtained off the upper deck and still had good sections available.
Even in the best of times, the multipurpose Value City Arena has always felt more corporate than collegiate. Lately, with little to cheer, we’ve seen funeral homes with more charm.
The apathy is approaching an all-time high as attendance hits new lows, the crowds falling from 16,474 fans per game in 2014 to 12,283 last year to 11,641 this season.
If these trends do not reverse — and there is no strong indication they will — it will be time to ask the once-unthinkable question.
Is new leadership needed?
This is not to say Thad Matta should be fired. A good man and a good coach, he deserves to leave on his terms. In 13 seasons at Ohio State, the school’s all-time wins leader reached remarkable heights in the towering shadow of football.
Two Final Fours. Five Sweet 16s. Six Big Ten titles. Not long ago, he was as good as it got anywhere.
But time waits for no man paid $3.4 million per year to deliver big results.
Think about this: The last Buckeyes football coach to leave on his own volition was Paul Brown in 1944. Heck, even Fred Taylor, the legendary basketball coach who led Ohio State to the 1960 national title, was forced out.
No one wants the same for the classy Matta, but since 2013, the Buckeyes have drifted from a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament to a 6 seed to a 10 seed to out of the dance entirely last season. This year is more of the same, a team that returned its top six players — including St. John’s Jesuit graduate Marc Loving — showing little improvement.
Although a recent season-ending injury to forward Keita Bates-Diop makes this year harder to judge, it does not change broader concerns about player development and recruiting.
Remember that heralded five-member 2015 recruiting class? All but one of them transferred after last season, and no true difference makers — the kind Matta used to have in spades but now lacks entirely — appear on the way.
Matta, 49, should be forever celebrated, and, yes, he is partly a victim of his own success. But this is more than a couple of natural down seasons. Once you so completely lose all momentum, it can be hard to recapture. A program with unlimited resources but increasingly limited interest is on an alarming course.
If Matta can’t stop the decline soon, it may be best for both sides to move on.