If you watched Ohio State's basketball team last season out of inertia or obligation, you could be forgiven. The team certainly wasn't bad. They earned a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament, after all, went 25-10 while playing in one of the toughest leagues in all of college basketball, and beat good Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska teams during the season. They played excellent team defense, and had their share of highlight plays.
But, they weren't really fun to watch. Why? Because that team struggled horribly to score, couldn't make open looks, and subsequently allowed themselves to get upset by bad teams (Penn State and ... Penn State, again), or killed their ability to beat good ones (e.g. Michigan). As deserving of every superlative compliment you could throw Aaron Craft's way on defense, his jump shot deserved nearly equal amounts of scorn. LaQuinton Ross, who was supposed to fill the role of Deshaun Thomas as the team's primary scorer, struggled with consistency. The result was sometimes successful, but it was often painful to watch.
The team before them had had many of the same struggles, Deshaun mostly aside. Of course, Ohio State fans didn't seem to mind that much. The first two months of basketball season obscured by the football team, and the full attention of the fanbase doesn't directly and exclusively focus on the basketball team until late January at earliest anyways. No matter how successful Matta's squads are, this is a football school. With what should be a really good team this year, Matta got all of three or four questions at Big Ten Media Day. And maybe that's okay.
This season has a good chance to be different from the last time. I'm not telling you not to watch the football team or anything, but this basketball team deserves your attention before deep in conference play.
First, like virtually all Ohio State teams over the last decade, this team projects to be pretty good. The Big Ten remains an absolute meat grinder of a basketball conference, with only one of the 14 teams, (Rutgers) projecting to be really bad. Even a few of the others likely to reside near the basement, like Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern, have an exceptional player or two that could make life difficult for anybody on a given night. Per an unofficial preseason media poll, Ohio State is projected to finish second, only behind likely preseason top five Wisconsin. Matt Norlander at CBS agrees. Despite losing one of the best players in Ohio State, if not Big Ten history, Ohio State should have a solid basketball team.
Why? For starters, the Buckeyes have some exciting newcomers. Freshman guard D'Angelo Russell is projected to be the league freshman of the year by virtually everybody. The 6'5, 174-pound five-star prospect may already be one of the best shooting guards in his class, and has the ball-handling skills to slide over to point guard to spell Shannon Scott. While he might not be Ohio State's best player on day one, he has the needed tools to be a major playmaking force for Ohio State this year. Above all else, he can do one thing that so many Buckeyes struggled to do recently, and that's get buckets.
He isn't the only player on this roster who should be able to score. Redshirt freshman Kam Williams, who got sick with Mono early last season, is back and can really shoot the basketball. Freshman forwards Jae'Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop enter the program highly regarded and should contribute at some level right away. Marc Loving should get a chance to showcase his shooting stroke now that he's had both a season under his belt and will likely demonstrate better spacing on the floor. The Buckeyes also added a big man transfer, Anthony Lee from Temple, who can stretch the floor in a way that Amir Williams and Trey McDonald frankly can't.
That isn't to say this team won't be able to defend at a high level either. Matta is still coaching, and there's plenty of defensive talent to like. Shannon Scott should contend for some level of all-conference defensive honors, and has the ability to provide a serviceable impression of Aaron Craft on that end of the court. Sam Thompson's incredible athleticism is already well known from his dunking, but Swat Thompson can make just as many appearances as Slam Thompson. For all of his flaws, Amir Williams is a near-top-of-the-conference defender at the rim, and the newcomers will have plenty of chances to shine.
Plus, unlike other Buckeye teams in recent memory, there is some drama and intrigue to start the season. Matta's teams are known for typically going to a short bench, but this Ohio State roster easily goes at least 10 deep. What the crunch-time lineup looks like, or who plays at each position, could go a half dozen different ways, so paying attention to some of those early December non-conference games is more than worth your time.
Ohio State's schedule, like every other major program, has their share of creampuff type games to start the year, but still includes the Buckeyes hosting an intriguing Marquette team for their second game, going to Louisville on Dec. 2 and taking on North Carolina near the end of the 2014, all of which should be watched. And hey, that "cupcake" game against High Point should be really fun, too.
So you've got a team that's going to play high-level defense, face high-level competition, has a few players who could potentially play themselves into first round bubble territory, and unlike previous years, should be able to shoot the ball. Are they going to win the NCAA tournament? Probably not. Are they going to win the Big Ten regular season title? Unless Wisconsin disappoints, again, unlikely.
But this should still be a good team with a lot to prove and with a lot more interesting storylines than in recent memory. They could even be a fun team.
Just don't wait until January to find out.