Big Ten Media Days kicked off for basketball today, but if you're an Ohio State fan, you could be forgiven for forgetting about it entirely. Not a single Buckeye was picked for preseason All Big-Ten honors. The Buckeyes weren't ranked in the USA TODAY preseason Coaches Poll (they received only two votes), and they're likely to be unranked in the preseason AP Poll for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. Yesterday, a panel of BTN.com voters picked Ohio State to finish 7th in the Big Ten. Even Thad Matta himself didn't do much to fight back against that perception, saying he'd probably agree with the idea that this is a rebuilding season for Ohio State.
This is probably not what Buckeye fans want to read after watching their team flirt with reaching their high expectations, only to struggle down the stretch. Ohio State has missed the second weekend of the NCAAs two seasons in a row now, and hasn't come close to competing for Big Ten titles or anything of major consequence in that time period. Not only did those last two squads struggle to meet expectations on paper, they also occasionally played basketball that was spectacularly unfun to watch. Now, it seems that Ohio State could very well have a third consecutive season of big picture irrelevance, something that hasn't happened to Ohio State since the very beginning of the Thad Matta era.
It might be tempting to bail on this season before it even starts, especially with Ohio State football still holding on to the #1 ranking in the polls. But that would be a mistake. Even if you've been burned over the last two seasons (I sure have), this team should be one sticking around for. It could even be fun.
It's not hard to figure out why expectations are lower for Ohio State this season. Almost their whole dang team graduated. All everything guard D'Angelo Russell is off to the Lakers. Roster mainstays Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Trey McDonald and Amir Williams have graduated, plus Anthony Lee. Not a single Buckeye returns who averaged double figures last season. Only two of their top eight rebounders return. The roster has only a single upperclassman, and a majority of Ohio State's likely ten man rotation will have never played college basketball for Ohio State before.
Given how strong the Big Ten looks, especially at the top, it's easy to see how that's a recipe for failure. But it doesn't have to be.
Ohio State's new rotation of players may be young, but that doesn't mean that they aren't talented. Ohio State's 2015 recruiting class was ranked 11th in the nation, and the best in the Big Ten. It's headlined by high four-star combo guard JaQuan Lyle, who will likely be expected to be the go-to scorer in the absence of Russell. It features A.J. Harris, a point guard who may be diminutive in stature, but has already drawn rave reviews for his speed and toughness. It features a sharpshooter in Austin Grandstaff, a 6-7 point forward in Mickey Mitchell, and one of the best big man recruits in his class, Daniel Giddens, who projects to add a defensive and rebounding intensity that has been lacking down low over the last few seasons, right out of the box.
You add those players to what is already an interesting young core, and you have athleticism, you have some shooting, you have toughness, and you have what could be a deeper bench, something that Matta teams traditionally have not had.
It's also a team that is going to struggle some nights, but in a profoundly different way from the struggles we've watched over the last two seasons.
The last two Ohio State teams were an exercise in "IFs" from already established players. Ohio State can take the next step IF Sam Thompson acquires a reliable jump shot. IF Shannon Scott can finish inside more consistently. IF Anthony Lee can get healthy. IF Amir Williams can...well, you get the picture.
As the seasons went along, it became apparent that the group of IFs wasn't going to happen. Those players were who they were. That doesn't necessarily make them bad college basketball players. But we knew how those players fit together, we knew what they were capable of, and what they weren't. That era hit the end of the line before their last game was played, and even though parts of it were fun (screaming while Sam Thompson just eviscerated some poor sucker on an inbound play was always a treat, as was watching D'Angelo pass the ball), it was also deeply frustrating. You knew the secondary scorer wasn't going to come. Those struggles on Tuesday nights against Iowa weren't going to build to any big improvement. This was what it was, and it wasn't good enough.
That isn't true for this year's team. There's only one player who could be called established, and Marc Loving unquestionably improved, even growing into one of the more dangerous three-point shooters in the Big Ten, before he was suspended and struggled in his return. IF Marc Loving can return to form doesn't feel like a hopeless plea, given that we've already seen what he's capable of. And IF he can't, there are plenty of other players.
Ohio State's entire frontcourt that had disappointed fans (even when it wasn't entirely justified), is gone, replaced by three players who all have some interesting upside and can do important basketball things right away. Ohio State's scoring options are nearly all new, and the old ones are new enough that improvement is still very likely.
This Ohio State team should still have enough raw talent to compete for an NCAA bid, and they may very well knock off a few teams down the stretch they have no business beating. But they'll struggle on some nights too. The good news is, the struggles this year are building towards something. We don't know what these players will ultimately become yet. Some may be exciting and great right now, others may take a year or two.
It's a new journey, and nobody knows what's going to happen. It'll probably be frustrating. It will probably make you cuss a few times (it's going to make me do that, for sure). But ultimately, it should also be a lot of fun, probably more fun than before, even if they struggle a teensy bit more.
You won't want to miss it.