It wasn't just Ohio State's season that came to a close last night, as the Buckeyes faltered in the second half on their way to a loss against Arizona. It marked the end of an era for Ohio State basketball, as the team is about to experience a major roster upheaval. Gone are a cadre of seniors with a mixed legacy in the eyes of many Buckeye fans: Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald and graduate transfer Anthony Lee. This group won a lot of basketball games, but also never really achieved their potential as prep recruits, and the team faltered a little over the lsat two seasons.
Phenomenal freshman guard D'Angelo Russell is also widely expected to leave to head to the NBA, as most mock drafts now have him as a top five pick in the next draft. Any time you have six players leaving your roster, you're going to have a dramatically different team the next season.
Thad Matta and company signed another top 10 recruiting class to replace the departing seniors, and the Big Ten will look very different as well. Wisconsin's super team will be mostly gone, Purdue's A.J. Hammons will be off to the NBA, Michigan State will be retooling. Will next year's team be able to make a real run at a conference title and a deep NCAA run? Could they struggle even more?
Well, that's going to depend on how they answer these questions.
Which Marc Loving is Ohio State going to get?
The popular critique of the Ohio State program right now is that players don't seem to get better, but for half the reason, you couldn't say that about Loving. After a freshman campaign where Loving shot 26% from downtown, he suddenly grew into an efficient three point bomber, finishing the year with a 46% three point percentage.
For half the season, Loving was a reliable double digit scoring option, clearly the team's second best player, and one who impact a game for reasons beyond just hot shooting. During Ohio State's best game of the season, an absolute trashing of Maryland, Loving threw in 19 points, and was a perfect 5-5 from downtown.
And then, of course, Loving was suspended, and never really recovered.
After his three game suspension, loving hit double figures just once, a 12 point outing against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. He shot a paltry 5-23 from three, and saw his minutes plummet. Loving wasn't able to reintegrate himself in the starting lineup, and his role moving forward appears cloudy.
Assuming Ohio State doesn't bring in another graduate transfer, Loving will be the team's only returning true upperclassman. He'll be the team's leading returning scorer (9.8 PPG). On a team next season that will be extremely young, and not one with a ton of depth at his position, it's difficult to imagine Ohio State having a successful season next year if Loving can't at the absolute least, return to his early season form. That's especially true, given question number two.
Just who is going to score, exactly?
The good news for Ohio State is that they have lots of potential scoring options for next season. Loving previously showed he's capable of being a reliable scoring option for at least part of a season. Jae'Sean Tate looks to build off his excellent freshman season (Big-Ten All Freshman Team, 8.8 PPG), and Keita-Bates Diop and Kam Williams have shown flashes of scoring potential in their limited minutes last season. Plus, the Buckeyes are bringing in another highly regarded recruiting class, with another shooter (Austin Grandstaff), a heralded combo guard (JaQuan Lyle) and more.
The trouble is, all of those players are underclassmen, and only two of them have seen significant minutes in high level college basketball. One of them dropped off a cliff near the end of the season. The other is 6'4, but plays like he's 6'9.
For the last few seasons, for good or for ill, Ohio State's offense has featured an alpha dog to lead the way. DeShaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross, D'Angelo Russell, etc. Unless Lyle establishes himself as that player early on, which is possible, the Buckeyes won't have one of those next year, and will require scoring by committee.
Not every one of those players necessarily to take a huge step for the team to be successful, but some of them need to. Ohio State hasn't bene able to get consistent offense out of an ensemble cast recently. Can they do it this year?
Can Ohio State grow up in time?
On Ohio State's entire projected roster for next season, just four players, Marc Loving, Trevor Thompson, Kam Williams and Jae'Sean Tate, can claim extensive experience playing against high level teams. Keita-Bates Diop has shown flashes of a great three-point stroke and will undoubtedly play a big role next season, but he played double digit minutes in Big Ten play just four times. Williams played more, but saw his three point shot nearly vanish once Big Ten play started, and failed to hit double digit points once in all of 2015. Trevor Thompson was a regular player during ACC play at Virginia Tech, but sat out last season due to a transfer.
That's not a big number at all, especially since almost all of them carry some kind of question mark coming into next season. Ohio State will almost certainly be starting a freshman at point guard, in either A.J. Harris or Lyle. All of their projected big men will either be freshman or redshirt freshman (Dave Bell and Thompson redshirted, Daniel Giddens is right out of high school). This level of inexperience up and down the roster is unusual, and will undoubtedly mean growing pains.
This is also a team that's going to face UConn, Memphis, Kentucky, and an ACC team (Miami? Pitt? NC State?) next season, plus a tough Big Ten slate. Ohio State's ability to develop players has been questioned, rightly or wrongly, a lot as of late, and their ability to do so next year will be the difference between competing for a Big Ten title, or perhaps missing the NCAAs.
There's a lot to be really excited about next season, but also a lot of uncertainty. Here's hoping the Buckeyes get the answers they need, and can get back to competing at a high level.