This year's version of the Ohio State basketball team isn't exactly projected to compete for a national championship. They're replacing one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the Big Ten in point guard Aaron Craft. They'll be competing in as rugged of a conference as ever, now flush with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, and with Wisconsin a preseason favorite not just to win the league, but to potentially win a national title. Even with all of that said, this year's team could be one of the most exciting and intriguing in recent memory, with all sorts of unanswered questions coming into the season. Those questions will start to get answered today, as the Buckeyes open their season against the UMass Lowell River Hawks at 7 p.m. Eastern.
Unlike in previous years, when Ohio State entered the season with a likely short bench and with player roles already fairly defined, this year's rotation could go in a lot of different directions. Senior Shannon Scott will undoubtedly man the point guard position, taking over for Craft, but still providing much of the tough defense Buckeye fans have grown to expect at the position. Scott's growth with his offensive game is a bit of an open question. Now that he's going to receive the bulk of the minutes, can he consistently reach the potential he displayed as a recruit? He'll get his chance to start that journey on Friday.
Other than the enigma that is Amir Williams at center, the other positions, and the rotation itself, is more of an unknown. Does Ohio State go with redshirt freshman Kam Williams at the two guard, or with highly touted freshman D'Angelo Russell, who wowed during the exhibition against Walsh? Russell projects to solve some of the shooting problems the Buckeyes struggled with over the last two seasons, and should get a healthy amount of playing time, whether he starts or not.
Senior Sam "Slam" Thompson is likely to get the nod at the wing, but he'll be pushed by Marc Loving, and a pair of freshman four-star forwards, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate. The Buckeyes could play any number of combinations of those four, depending on whether they want to go big or small. Transfer big man Anthony Lee, previously at Temple, will also fit into that rotation. He may provide spacing in a big lineup next to Williams, or could see time as a small ball center. Expect Matta to use a deep bench and show multiple looks against the River Hawks, to get an idea for what may work later in the season.
The big questions for this game centers around Ohio State, since the opponent is unlikely to provide much of a stiff test. UMass Lowell of the America East conference is only in their second year of Division I basketball and went 10-18 last season, losing every game against DI out-of-conference opponents but one, a 76-64 victory over one-time perennial cellar dwellers NJIT. The River Hawks were picked in the preseason to finish last in the America East conference, and project to be one of the very worst teams in the entire country this season. Expect Ohio State to roll comfortably in this game, and get the early season jitters out of the way in time for a big game against Marquette.
Numbers to know
Just how bad is UMass-Lowell expected to be this season? Stats wizard Ken Pomeroy has them ranked at No. 340 to start the season. To provide some context here, there are only 351 teams in all of Division I. For an exceptionally young roster currently transitioning to full D1 play, that's to be expected, and the River Hawks should still be able to steal a few games in the America East. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if this is the worst team Ohio State faces all season.
That's where Ohio State sits, nationally, in those same KenPom rankings, behind only Michigan State (12) and Wisconsin (6) in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes will be tested heavily in conference play, as every Big Ten team is at 102 or better, but outside of Marquette, Louisville and North Carolina, the pre-conference games should be relatively smooth sailing. That's good news for Ohio State, that will need to get big contributions from numerous underclassmen, especially on offense, if they want to compete for a league title this season. Working out those kinks during these winnable games makes a lot of sense.
It's tough to build a winner when you have a wildly inexperienced roster (unless you're Kentucky). UMass Lowell will have seven true freshman on the roster next season, and nine total underclassmen. While the bulk of last year's starters will be in place, an entirely new bench and rotation, coupled with traveling to play in a huge arena like Ohio State's, and the size disparity that typically occurs when a power conference team plays a low major, and you've got quite the uphill climb for the River Hawks.
Cast of Characters
Love him or hate him, there is no doubt Ohio State needs him, as Williams will be the primary rim protector inside presence for the Buckeyes this season. His weaknesses have been well documented, but Amir wasn't a McDonald's All-American as a recruit because he didn't have any potential. With only only player on UMass Lowell's roster at 6'8 or taller, Williams could have the chance to boost his confidence and make his presence known early in this game. Look to see if the Buckeyes try to establish a presence inside, as Williams could exploit some mismatches here.
Fans frustrated with the inconsistent play of Williams largely applauded the arrival of Lee, a graduate transfer from Temple with just the year of eligibility remaining. Lee is likely to play more alongside Williams than supplement him completely, was a strong rebounder at Temple and has shooting range that Williams and Trey McDonald lack. It will be interesting to see how Lee fits into the rotation, and whether he ends up being the revelation that many fans want him to be, or is just another role player in a deep rotation for Ohio State.
Holley is the leading returning scorer for the River Hawks, and as one of the few upperclassmen on the team, will be filling a leadership role. The 5'10 senior averaged 10.3 points per game last season, to go with 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals. Holley started every game but one last season, and played 33 minutes a night, leading the squad. Holley isn't a great shooter (only 30% from three last season, 34% from the floor), but he can convert at the free throw line, and could see his usage increase this season. If UMass Lowell is going to have a chance in the game, they will need a big night from Holley.
It's probably not a good thing when your leading returning rebounder is 6'2, but that's DJ Mlachnik, who averaged 3.4 boards a game last season, along with 7.8 points as a starter last season. Mlachnik is going to shoot a lot of threes, and he's capable of seriously heating up from downtown. He hit four three-balls against Boston University last season, and five against NJIT. He dropped 19-and-8 to finish last season against Maine, and could cause problems if he's able to consistently get open.