Thad Matta, the winningest coach in Ohio State basketball history (men’s or women’s), has finished outside of his conference’s top five just twice in his 15-year career. The first was in his debut season at Ohio State, the ill-fated postseason-ineligible campaign of 2004-05 (the team that toppled the undefeated Illini on Matt Sylvester’s one shining moment).
The other was last season.
Call it what you will—there is certainly an argument to be made that it’s less about the team’s talent or Matta’s ability to harness it than it is about the rest of the conference getting progressively better. Maybe last year’s team played too top-heavy. Or perhaps Matta just planned it that way.
Whatever the case, the Buckeyes lose the no. 2 overall NBA draft pick in D’Angelo Russell, second-leading scorer and SportsCenter Top 10 fixture Sam Thompson, team assists leader Shannon Scott, and three other players, leaving just four players on the roster who have logged meaningful minutes at Ohio State.
The personnel losses have to be taken in stride. After all, that roster was not without its faults. But when you look at the 2015-16 prospectus, just the ink on the paper, it’s hard to keep your head from swimming.
There are as many freshmen on the team as not. In fact, there are only two upperclassmen at all, and only one senior: coaching intern Jake Lorbach. It should at least make for an interesting senior day program. Or maybe he can just be on the cover for every game. Like Oprah. Much love, Bach.
Forecasting a season is always difficult. It’s a wonder people try at all, frankly. More than just the projected finish, though, just knowing who’ll do what and from where is a little bit up in the air.
The most bankable asset at Matta’s disposal has to be Jae’Sean Tate. He’s the only returning non-percentage statistical leader from a year ago (offensive rebounds), and not only did he appear in all 35 games, he started the final 16 of the season. His motor is already legendary, and he’ll be counted on to hit the boards hard and keep energy high.
Lone junior Marc Loving has hit a couple speed bumps in his two-year career, but his stat line was nevertheless robust in his sophomore season, having improved in nearly every conceivable category from his first go. When he’s on, he’s lethal.
Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop differ greatly in size (6-2 and 6-7 respectively), but both players flashed serious scoring potential from the wing as freshmen. These two figure to provide lots of pop off the bench.
The frontcourt features three young posts: true freshman Daniel Giddens, redshirt freshman David Bell, and sophomore Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson. Thompson has the most meat on his bones, but all three are long and athletic. Who’ll get the lion’s share of the minutes is likely going to come down to effort.
Two freshmen point guards now run the show. The more heralded of the two is the 6-foot-5 JaQuan Lyle, a prep school signing who bounced around a bit before finally committing to the Buckeyes. His size and versatility will have a lot of people looking to him to fill Russell’s shoes. With any luck, he’ll do so without needing to command so much of the offense.
Joining Lyle is A.J. Harris, a signee since 2013 and an ESPN Top100 recruit himself. People will first notice his small stature (5-9). Then people will notice how ridiculously quick and athletic the Dayton product is. He may back up Lyle, or they may share the floor. But don’t be surprised if he proves invaluable as a pure pacing point.
The two wildcards are guard Austin Grandstaff and forward Mickey Mitchell. They’re both from Texas, they’re both freshmen, and they both ooze potential. Grandstaff can score in waves. Mitchell can just plain ball. Whether or not Grandstaff finds college defenders as easy to shoot over and Mitchell can flash his handle at 6-7 like he did in high school are the hot topics for these two.
Per usual, Matta has loaded the roster with ability. He’ll tinker with things until December—when the Bucks travel to UConn—then he’ll probably arrive at his regular eight- or nine-man rotation. They’ll win some, they’ll lose some, and with any luck, Ohio State will finish in the top ten in attendance for the fourth year running.
Some are picking the Buckeyes to finish as low as eighth in the Big Ten. Some say Dance, some say no. No matter what, this team will learn a lot about itself as it faces the likes of Virginia, UConn, and Kentucky before heading into what will probably be the toughest conference slate any of these players have seen. •
Ohio State kicks off the season at home with Mount St. Marys (11.15) and Grambling St. (11.17). For more, visit ohiostatebuckeyes.com.
November & December Basketball Schedule
11.15 Mount St. Mary’s
11.24 Louisiana Tech
11.27 vs. Memphis (at Miami)
12.8 Air Force
12.12 at Connecticut
12.16 Northern Illinois
12.19 vs. Kentucky (at Brooklyn, N.Y.)
12.27 South Carolina State