Ohio State's actual basketball season starts on Sunday, and it opens with the lowest expectations in recent memory. The Buckeyes didn't get a single preseason vote in the AP Top 25, they're picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten back by most analysts; their ability to keep their NCAA streak alive is in jeopardy. Ohio State's performance during their scrimmage on Saturday, where they beat D2 Walsh by only 10 points in a game that wasn't really over until the final few minutes, may not inspire a lot of confidence that the Buckeyes will exceed that relatively modest bar.
Will they? What kind of team does Ohio State actually have? Let's make some predictions that we can openly mock in April.
Ohio State will make the NCAA tournament, but just barely
I completely understand the argument for why Ohio State would miss the tournament, given their youth at nearly every position. But I think Ohio State still grabs one of the last spots in the tournament.
Call this a vote of confidence in Thad Matta and the Ohio State coaching staff, who should be able to coax quality defensive effort from this roster. Call it a hunch that the Big Ten, one of the best conferences in the country over the last few seasons, could get the benefit of the doubt come Selection Sunday. But mostly, I think this schedule helps Ohio State's case.
It seems likely that Ohio State is going to be playing their best basketball of the season, barring bad injury luck, later in the season, once a rotation is more clear, and younger players get more experience. The Buckeyes get Michigan State twice in their last three games (plus a home game against what should be a good Iowa team), and their start to Big Ten play is relatively modest. There are a few RPI clunkers in November, but if Ohio State can limit bad losses and steal a game or two in February, they should be right on that bubble conversation. I like them to get a 10 seed, missing the First Four, but keeping that 20-win streak alive.
Ohio State will both beat a Top 15 team, and also lose at least one sub RPI 100 game
The schedule is not forgiving, since many of the Big Ten teams Ohio State faces that are likely to be in this conversation don't come to Columbus. But if the Buckeyes can't knock off Michigan State at home on February, they have shots at Indiana, Virginia, two with Maryland, and depending on how the season goes, shots at UConn and Wisconsin. Even if all of those teams might be better than Ohio State, it's a long season, and I feel pretty good about Ohio State catching somebody on the wrong night to spring the upset.
On that note, Ohio State's youth, ball handling, and learning to defend without fouling mean that there are going to be some bumps in the road. Thad Matta coached teams have rarely suffered really really bad losses, but this year might could see one. I think Ohio State drops one of the Louisiana Tech/at Rutgers, at Nebraska group.
Marc Loving leads the team in scoring
The last few Ohio State teams have had a featured scorer (Deshaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross, D'Angelo Russell), and struggled to establish secondary scorers. This year, it doesn't look like there is one guy who is far and away the best scoring option, so the Buckeyes will need to do it by committee (and some nights, probably not at all). Jae'Sean State, Keita Bates-Diop, and new freshman guard JaQuan Lyle are all possible options here, but I think over the course of the season, Marc Loving is your leading man. Loving still should be one of the best three point shooters on this team, but he's also going to be a more engaged rebounder, and has the ability to get to the basket. Once you combine that with the fact that he's the most experienced guy on the team, and it's not hard to see why he'll be getting the most buckets. It should be pretty close though.
JaQuan Lyle will get a triple double this season
Lyle almost got one against Walsh, grabbing 16 points, nine board and seven dimes, and given his size and likely high usage this season, he should get some chances to come close to that again. Ohio State's young big rotation (Thompson and Giddens) may not be a magnet for rebounds, especially at the start of the season, and Lyle's size will allow him to bully smaller guards, especially in the early season, for points. Look like Lyle to put up some impressive box scores, especially in the early season. That VMI game on Dec. 5, which will certainly feature a ton of possessions, seems like a decent candidate.
Ohio State's rotation will shrink during Big Ten play, just like it always does
Ohio State's rotation is already set at this point, and there will be plenty of bodybag games in the early going to give everybody a chance to play and make their case for minutes, but just like every season, Ohio State is almost certainly not going to go nine or ten deep unless forced to foul trouble, once the Buckeyes get deeper into Big Ten games. My guess is that Lyle/Williams/Tate/Loving/Thompson is your starting five, with Bates-Diop and Giddens your first two off the bench, and Harris used in spot settings.
That isn't to say that Austin Grandstaff, David Bell or Mickey Mitchell (assuming he gets reinstated) are bad or anything. Just more that there aren't minutes for everybody, and it's harder to see how what they do well fits in with the rest of the team. Of that group, Grandstaff probably has the best chance for making a case for playing time, since this team probably isn't a great three-point shooting team, and Grandstaff could bring range immediately, but he still may need more seasoning to prepare physically and defensively.
Somebody leaves Ohio State with eligiblity remaining at the end of the year
Call this a hunch. The Buckeyes have two open scholarship slots for 2016, but both have been filled, by big man Derek Funderburke and Micah Potter. Ohio State is still recruiting players here, especially five-star point guard Kobi Simmons. If Ohio State can't grab Simmons, just looking at their roster construction, it's not hard to see them trying to grab a graduate transfer to help at point guard, especially if Lyle or Harris struggle this season. Next year's team is more built to contend, but it's a little mismatched, positionally.
The Buckeyes won't be able to add anybody else unless another scholarship opens up, but that isn't so far-fetched. Maybe JaQuan Lyle has an excellent season and decides to try and go professional after one season. Maybe one of Ohio State's big men looks at the two players about to join the team and decides to transfer elsewhere for more playing time. Maybe something else happens. The Buckeyes haven't had unexpected roster attrition for a few seasons, and maybe they're due. Somebody leaving at the end of this year for whatever reason would not surprise me.
Should be a very interesting season either way. The Buckeyes take on Mount St. Mary's this Sunday at noon on ESPNU.