Ohio State’s first regular season basketball game is this Friday, when they travel to face Navy.
Normally, around this time of year, I’d write a column where I’d try to hype up this Ohio State basketball team as fun, or different from last year, and give you reasons to be invested.
I’m not going to do that this year. I have no idea if Ohio State basketball will be fun. I am cautiously optimistic that they will be better than last season. And perhaps exceed the modest expectations the national media has for them, but I certainly don’t know that for a fact. The Buckeyes have been frustrating and underachieving for the last few seasons. It’s certainly possible that they’ll finish that way again.
But I can write with a perfectly straight face that this Ohio State basketball team is going to be an important one.
The Buckeyes have watched their fortunes decline since a regional final appearance in the 2012-2013 season. Last year, they failed to make the NCAAs entirely, the first Ohio State team to do that since 2007-2008.
Already, one highly regarded recruiting class, featuring players like Amir Williams, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, failed to produce a roster capable of making much of a March run. Nearly all of the 2015 class, ranked in the top ten nationally, has transferred. And the bulk of Ohio State’s last large recruiting class, 2014, are now upperclassmen.
On some level, this is the year for Ohio State. Last year’s leading scorer, Marc Loving, is a senior. It is possible, if not probable, that some combination of Jaquan Lyle and Trevor Thompson will leave early to pursue professional basketball careers after this year. And the next cavalry of higher rated Ohio State recruits doesn’t really come in until the 2018 class. If the Buckeyes don’t make a move now, it might be a while before they’re able to.
Will they be able to take a big step forward? These questions will go a long way towards answering that.
What kind of impact will Chris Jent have?
Regular readers of this website know that we were supporters of Jeff Boals, who left this offseason to become the new head coach at Stony Brook. Under Boals, Ohio State continued to defend at an above average level, keeping them in games when their shot wasn’t falling.
But over the last few seasons, it was clear that those shots weren’t falling at a higher and higher clip. Replacing Boals is former Ohio State assistant, and offensive guru Chris Jent. Jent, who has coached in the NBA and personally tutored LeBron James, is an Ohio State guy through and through, and said to bring a more intense element to Ohio State’s coaching staff. Will he able to coax additional offensive improvement from a group that is experienced, but has yet to produce efficient offense, or will true improvement be found once Jent is able to bring in more of “his” guys?
Who is playing center?
Trevor Thompson, a 6’11 big man who played in every game last season, would seem like the favorite to land the most minutes at the five. After all, he returns the most experience, production, and even showed flashes last season of how he could be a productive professional basketball player. But the starter during Ohio State’s scrimmage against Walsh was freshman big man Micah Potter.
Potter represents a look that Ohio State hasn’t really had in years, as a floor stretching big man. While Thompson gives the Buckeyes a more conventional look, with rim protection and rebounding, Potter can help improve Ohio State’s anemic spacing, giving wings more room to get to the basket. He can also hit threes (he hit one against Walsh).
The adjustment period for freshman into Big Ten play is often a harsh one, so Potter may have a learning curve to navigate, but how this rotation works out could be fascinating. Given how long Ohio State is at other positions, perhaps they can get away with playing Potter at a five more often. But if Thompson’s minutes decrease significantly, does it increase chances that he leaves after the season? Can Potter provide the rim protection needed against say, a Purdue, or a Wisconsin?
Can this team cut back on turnovers?
If you don’t have a team that can be relied on to bomb away from downtown (which Ohio State doesn’t), efficient offensive play becomes even more critical. And nothing ruins that more than turnovers, something the Buckeyes struggled badly with last year, especially in the backcourt.
The addition of C.J. Jackson, a more traditional, pass-first point guard option to supplement JaQuan Lyle might help. Jackson had a team leading six assists against Walsh (against four turnovers), and earned the praise of nearly everybody around the Ohio State program, from coaches to players. Turnovers are going to be part of Lyle’s game, and something Ohio State will need to learn to live with, but can the rest of the roster mitigate them enough to win?
Will Ohio State help or hurt themselves before Big Ten play?
Last year, the Buckeyes drew what turned out to be a very easy Big Ten schedule, helping them pick up a gaudy win-loss record and push them closer to the bubble. But horrible losses to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis damaged their RPI to the point that not even a win over Kentucky could salvage it. Ohio State simply needed to make up too much ground and didn’t have enough games to do it.
This year’s schedule is likely a little tougher, and the Buckeyes will probably need to win at least one of UConn, UCLA, and a road trip to Virginia. But there are other games that could trip them up, like a road trip at Navy, a game against a rebuilding Providence squad, and showdowns with Marshall and UNC-Asheville could be good enough to upset the Buckeyes if they overlook them.
This Ohio State team should be improved, but they may not be improved enough to absorb a terrible loss or two without crushing their postseason hopes.