Even after a 79-69 victory at Rutgers on Saturday and a favorable upcoming schedule (home vs. Michigan Tuesday, at Nebraska Saturday), Ohio State is more likely destined for the National Invitation Tournament than the NCAA tournament. Frankly, given this group's youth, the NIT -- as long as the Ohio State finishes a game or two within .500 in Big Ten play, they are a shoo-in for the NIT -- is a reasonable conclusion for the 2015-16 Buckeyes.
But what about next season?
Any reasonable Ohio State hoops fan will not be planning a trip to Phoenix for the Final Four or even penciling in a regular-season Big Ten title, but across the board improvement should rightfully be expected, with a trip to the NCAA tournament an essential accomplishment. The one player who will be most responsible for the Buckeyes' development? JaQuan Lyle. Here are three reasons why the freshman point guard from Evansville, Ind., quite literally holds Ohio State's future in his hands...
Ohio State missed out on Kobi Simmons
Through the start of the new year, the recruiting scuttlebutt was that Thad Matta & Co. were in a favorable position to land Simmons, a five-star Class of 2016 combo guard out of Georgia. But then word leaked out on Jan. 14 that the Buckeyes were no longer recruiting Simmons. Two days later, Simmons committed to Arizona and former Ohio State assistant Sean Miller.
According to scouting reports, the 6-5, 170-pound Simmons is neither a true point guard or shooting guard, so Lyle and Simmons would've made for an interesting pair. But, Simmons would have injected a slashing element to the Buckeyes' offense that rarely comes from A.J. Harris or Kam Williams, as well as another threat from beyond the arc (Simmons is shooting 39 percent from 3-point land as a senior). A prospective 2016-17 starting five of Lyle, Simmons, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, and either Trevor Thompson or Daniel Giddens would have contained one five-star player and a quartet of four-star players. Oh, what could have been.
The 2016-17 roster is (probably) set
After Austin Grandstaff transferred from the program, a scholarship opened up for Ohio State. The most predictable scenario in the present is the Buckeyes adding Class of 2016 forwards Derek Funderburk and Micah Potter and pocketing the scholarship for the 2017 class so the coaching staff can add a guard to pair with Westerville South center Kaleb Wesson. Remember: in the frontcourt, Ohio State presently has one true freshman (Giddens), a redshirt freshman (David Bell), and a redshirt sophomore (Thompson), with the 6-9 Funderburk and 6-10 Potter coming in next year. And then the 6-8 Wesson will arrive prior to the 2017-18 season. Quite obviously, the Buckeyes need more ball handlers.
There is an alternate possibility: Ohio State could add a transfer. In this scenario, there are two options. Option No. 1 is the Buckeyes pursuing a straight transfer, or a player willing to sit out a season. Option No. 2 is the graduate transfer route, which is something Matta did with former Temple forward Anthony Lee prior to the 2014-15 campaign. It's worth noting that last offseason, Ohio State reportedly sought a pair of graduate transfers in former Cleveland State guard Trey Lewis (who landed at Louisville) and ex-Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs (who went to Connecticut).
Lyle already is 'The Guy'
With a usage rate of 23.3 percent, Lyle already has the ball in his hands more than any other Buckeye who plays regular minutes. (Sorry, Joey Lane). And while there have undoubtedly been bright spots for a Lyle -- among them, a 13-assist, one-turnover outing vs. Minnesota on Dec. 30, a 29-point outburst at Indiana on Jan. 10, a triple-double vs. Rutgers on Jan. 13, and a 27-point showing at Wisconsin on Feb. 4 -- there have been plenty of bumps in the road.
In four games from Jan. 21 through Jan. 31, Lyle scored a total of 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting and went to the foul line just seven times. Among Ohio State regulars with at least 300 minutes played, Lyle ranks in third in turnover rate (21 percent) and sixth in both offensive win shares and offensive rating. After a 1-for-6 performance on Saturday, Lyle is shooting just 39 percent from the field, including a 26 percent clip from beyond the arc.
After Matta reinserted Lyle in the starting five Tuesday against Northwestern following a four-game absence, Lyle -- like just about every other Buckeye -- delivered a dud of a first half, registering three points and as many fouls (two) as assists and rebounds combined in 13 minutes. At intermission, Matta and Lyle engaged in what sounds like a productive (and likely one-sided) chat.
"I had a one-on-one conversation with him at halftime tonight," Matta said post-game of Lyle, who finished with 16 points and six rebounds in Ohio State's 71-63 win. "I give him credit for responding. He had very good control of what he was doing and he gave off positive energy that was helpful to us."
Prior his uninspired showing on Saturday, Lyle had enjoyed a two-game stretch where he compiled 43 points on 52 percent shooting, eight rebounds, five assists, and three turnovers.
Despite his faults, Lyle remains the no-brainer choice to be the Buckeyes' engine. Williams is what he is: an elite 3-point shooter (49 percent) who can cobble together a handful of 20-point games a year, but the 6-2 redshirt sophomore's offensive impact is mitigated by his iffy ball handling. As for Harris, though the 5-9 point guard is already an impact defender, his offense (33 percent shooting) will be a year-to-year work in progress, and his size will always work against him.
And while Bates-Diop and Giddens provide the Buckeyes with two other true blue-chip talents, college basketball is guard's game. Though Lyle's ball security, decision-making, and shooting remain a work in progress, at 6-5, 230 pounds, Lyle already owns a keen knowledge of how to maneuver his weight and attack the rim essentially any time he wants.
Matta looks to be betting the next 14 months largely on Lyle, and it's hard to blame him because his freshman point guard remains the best hope Matta has for a rebound season next winter.