Ohio State's tumultuous 2015-16 season finally ended Sunday with a 74-66 defeat at the hands of the Florida Gators in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. Undone, at least in part, due to the absences of Keita Bates-Diop (mono) and Jae'Sean Tate (shoulder), the shorthanded Buckeyes appeared tired, lethargic, and just plain worn out at times opposite the more-inspired Gators.
"One of the biggest things is this should serve as a humbling experience and how we define humility is knowing your strengths and your weaknesses," Thad Matta said post-game. "I think all of us need to commit to getting better."
Now, the attention turns to a critical offseason, the most important summer in the recent history of Matta's program. With the exception of Marc Loving, the Baby Bucks were an all-underclassmen outfit in 2015-16. Now, the excuse well has dried up, and it's time for Ohio State to resemble something close to the Ohio State (finish in the upper half of the Big Ten, make the NCAA Tournament) we've grown to know under Matta's tenure following seventh, sixth, and fifth place finishes in the Big Ten and just one NCAA Tournament victory over the past three seasons. Here are four storylines to watch in the coming months:
Will any players leave the program?
It is feasible that the Buckeyes could return all 10 of their current scholarship players in 2016-17. But it's also possible that a player may decide to transfer, given that playing time at some position groups could become much harder to find.
David Bell, a self-admitted "project," found himself lower on the big man pecking order during the season, even when Ohio State's other two big men, Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens, fouled out. The Buckeyes also stand to add considerable size in the forthcoming two seasons. Thompson (17.9 minutes per game) owns two more years of eligibility and Giddens (18.2 minutes per game) could stick around for three more seasons. Four-star forward Derek Funderburk and three-star center Micah Potter will join the frontcourt fray next season, and four-star prospect Kaleb Wesson is slated to do the same in 2017-18.
Bell told Cleveland.com after Sunday's game that he plans on staying in Columbus. With all of those forwards and centers coming to Columbus, there's a chance that somebody could decide they're an odd man out.
There is no reason to suspect that any other Ohio State players would leave the program. After Sunday's loss, Giddens, Loving, Kam Williams, and JaQuan Lyle told the Columbus Dispatch that they will be back in 2016-17.
What will Ohio State do with its extra scholarship?
Let's do some quick scholarship math. The NCAA allots 13 scholarships for Division I men's basketball teams. Presuming Ohio State's five current freshmen (Bell, Giddens, A.J. Harris, Lyle, Mitchell), four sophomores (Bates-Diop, Tate, Thompson, Williams), and lone junior (Loving) return, the Buckeyes should bring back 10 scholarship players from the 2015-16 team. The additions of Funderburk and Potter up that total to 12.
Matta & Co. have been in possession of an open 13th scholarship since freshman guard Austin Grandstaff decided to leave the program in December. Post-game Sunday, Matta said Ohio State will "most definitely" use that open spot for the 2016-17 season. Matta's two options are to procure someone from high school or to add a transfer, whether that be a straight transfer (a player that would sit out next year) or a graduate transfer (a player that would be eligible solely for 2016-17).
As far as high school players are concerned, the Buckeyes are hot after Class of 2017 point guard Markell Johnson. The East Tech (Cleveland) product, who said he is "considering" reclassifying to the Class of 2016, visited Columbus for Ohio State's win over Iowa on Feb. 28 and recently included the Buckeyes in his list of top-five schools. The Buckeyes have also reportedly reached out to four-star Class of 2016 shooting guard Tyson Jolly, who earlier this week requested to be released from the letter of intent he signed with California.
In the transfer realm, Matta has a recent history with graduate transfers, securing a commitment from former Temple forward Anthony Lee prior to the 2014-15 campaign, and unsuccessfully wooing guards Sterling Gibbs and Trey Lewis prior to this season. Last offseason, Ohio State also lost out on Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss, who eventually selected Gonzaga and will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning next year. If the Buckeyes do look for a grad transfer, another point guard or a scoring wing seem like the most likely candidates.
Which Buckeyes are capable of making a leap into stardom next season?
Bates-Diop, Giddens, and Lyle. With apologies to Loving and Tate, these three have the highest ceilings of anyone on the team.
A reasonable argument -- with the support of some statistics -- could be made that Bates-Diop exhibited only marginal improvement (and even a few steps in reverse) from his freshman season. The only real area I found concerning relating to KBD's offense was the deep dive his 3-point shooting percentage took from 46 percent his freshman year to 32 percent in 2015-16. I tend to think that like many of his teammates, Bates-Diop simply struggled with a vastly increased workload. I'm still a believer in KBD's potential, though next year is a big one for him.
With Giddens, the game was simply too fast for him this season. Next year, it would be nice to see Giddens make headway at the foul line (44 percent ain't gonna cut it) and restraint (team-high 3.3 fouls per game). Giddens should model himself after DeAndre Jordan (sans the awful free-throw shooting) and focus on becoming Ohio State's intimidating defensive anchor and finishing anything and everything around the rim offensively.
As for Lyle, I went on the record in mid-February saying that he is the key to Ohio State's return to relevance. I still believe that. Lyle had his hands on the ball more than any other Buckeye regular this past season, and that's not likely to change moving forward. What does need to change is certain aspects of Lyle's game.
I'm not sure Lyle, who shot 40 percent from the field (25 percent from 3) in 2015-16, will ever become even a solid shooter in college, but improvements in decision-making (Lyle averaged a team-high three turnovers per game) would lead to a more fluid offense for Ohio State, which ranked 149th out of 351 Division I teams in KenPom.com's offensive efficiency ratings. Progressions in maturity (limiting the pouting and ceasing the water bottle abuse) and physical conditioning could propel Lyle into first team all-Big Ten consideration in 2016-17.
Is a return to Big Ten title contention feasible?
Yes, if Ohio State hits a home run on player development. However, a more likely scenario is that the 2016-17 Buckeyes finish with the same or a similar conference record (11-7) as the 2015-16 team. That scenario could still be considered improvement from 2015-16; it just depends how the Big Ten's unbalanced league schedule shakes out and how early departures affect other teams. Right now, I'd peg Michigan State (major departures are coming, but one of Tom Izzo's best-ever recruiting classes is coming in), Indiana (if Thomas Bryant stays), Wisconsin (if Nigel Hayes sticks around), and Purdue (A.J Hammons is gone, but Caleb Swanigan should be around) as a cut above the presently-constructed Buckeyes.
Think of the 2016-17 team in a similar light as the 2008-09 team, which finished 22-11 (10-8 Big Ten) and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. On paper, the 2008-09 season wasn't much of a progression from the 2007-08 team, which went 24-13 (10-8 Big Ten) and won the NIT.
But, the 2009-10 Buckeyes (mostly sophomores and juniors) finished 29-8 (14-4 Big Ten), won a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even if Ohio State fails to develop a national player of the year like Evan Turner, this is a reasonable evolution to expect form the current bunch by 2017-18.