While reviewing Athlon Sports' 2015-16 projected NCAA Tournament field in the publication's College Basketball preview magazine, something did not seem right. It was like something was missing.
Then I found it. Ohio State was not among the 66 teams projected to make The Big Dance.
Projecting the Buckeyes to make the NIT and finish eighth in the Big Ten, Athlon does not have great expectations for a Thad Matta-coached team that does not return a player who averaged double-figures in 2014-15. According to Athlon, in order for the Buckeyes to make its ninth-straight tournament appearance, they must get better quickly, as a tough non-conference slate including the likes of Connecticut, Virginia and Kentucky looms ahead.
With seven newcomers joining a team whose top returning scorer, junior forward Marc Loving, suffered from a mid-season slump and multi-game suspension, Ohio State will be tasked with finding the right rotation for a young team with only two upperclassmen (Loving and senior forward Jake Lorbach). While Athlon is down on Ohio State's chances to make the NCAA Tournament, we see the Buckeyes sticking around for at least the first weekend of tournament play. Here is why:
While ineptitude in the post and inconsistent shooting has plagued Ohio State for the last two seasons, we see things changing in 2015-16. A top ten recruiting class brings in fresh energy and a breath of fresh air for a program that has struggled to shoot from the perimeter and hold its own on the interior as of late. Headlined by 6-foot-5 guard JaQuan Lyle, 6-foot-7 forward Mickey Mitchell and 6-foot-10 center Daniel Giddens, Ohio State may be young, but the Buckeyes are talented.
Aiding Giddens on the interior are redshirt freshman center Dave Bell (6-foot-10) and sophomore transfer center Trevor Thompson (6-foot-11), who both sat out the 2014-15 season. With three long, athletic and hungry big men looking to improve Ohio State's post play, Buckeye fans will have something to look forward to out of the center position group.
On the wings, Ohio State is loaded with sophomores Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate and Kam Williams, while the junior Loving can be one of the top catch-and-shoot specialists in the Big Ten when he is dialed in. While Bates-Diop is a long shot maker at 6-foot-7 that can stretch the floor, Tate and Williams are more attacking wings, as Tate made his bread and butter as a scrappy combo-forward that played all over the floor as a freshman.
In the backcourt, Lyle looks to run the point, while fellow freshman AJ Harris (5-foot-9) is likely to serve as Ohio State's reserve point guard off the bench. Lyle is much in the form of former Ohio State star guard D'Angelo Russell, in that he is a bigger guard with great vision and scoring ability. We see Harris performing in a similar role as Kentucky's Tyler Ulis last season, as Harris, despite his size, brings elite quickness, defensive prowess, and a terrific motor to the floor. Freshman Austin Grandstaff should see some action on the wing, as Matta has raved about his shooting ability, but look for Williams to play mostly at the two-guard spot once Big Ten play rolls around.
Mitchell, given his versatility and distributor-like skill set, could be a primary option at either forward spot, and could even see some time at the point guard spot when Ohio State wants to go big.
Improvements in post play and perimeter scoring are on the way for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are looking to improve on a 222nd national ranking for defensive rebound percentage in 2014-15. The size and strength of Giddens and Thompson will be vital for the Buckeyes, while Bell will add energy and shot-blocking ability as the second big off the Buckeye bench.
Finishing toward the middle of the conference in three-point shooting in 2014-15, Ohio State should shoot the ball better from the perimeter this time around, as the Buckeyes will have more firepower in the lineup. On a team with 10 freshmen and sophomores, we expect this Ohio State team to be more hungry than other Buckeye teams as of late.
With a barrage of weapons to choose from, it's all going to come down to finding the right rotation for Ohio State to gel and get the most out of its versatility. Matta is a proven winner that has shown an ability to bounce back after losing big-time talent to the NBA, and we think 2015-16 will be no different.
While a Sweet 16 appearance may be out of the realm of possibility, we still see Ohio State being one of the final two teams to make the tournament out of the Big Ten. With six Top 25-caliber teams in the conference, Ohio State could find itself as the seventh or eighth team to make the Big Dance. The top incoming recruiting class in the conference helps Ohio State from a talent standpoint, and we think these Buckeyes will be too talented to not lead this team to the program's ninth-straight NCAA tournament.