You don’t need me to remind you that things are not going well for Ohio State basketball right now.
The big story came over the weekend when point guard JaQuan Lyle was booked on three charges in Indiana. Later that day, the school said that actually, Lyle quit the team a month ago, which seems... well, odd, to say the least. Now, in addition to Ohio State’s recruiting struggles, declining performances over the last five years, and further roster attrition, they’ll head into next season with a massive question at point guard.
Things are so bad that Dave Briggs, the opposite of a hot-take artist, is saying that Matta’s time in Columbus is basically up. It’s not hard to reach that conclusion.
It seems pretty clear that this coming season is going to be make-or-break for Matta and Ohio State basketball, and you could be forgiven if you haven’t drummed up a ton of excitement for the campaign. But is a losing season and an end of the most successful coach in Buckeye history inevitable? Is a turnaround possible?
Let’s play devil’s advocate here for a minute. Forget the institutional, structural challenges right now with Ohio State. Let’s just focus on next year’s squad. If I was to give an argument for an optimistic case for a Buckeye rebound, here’s how it would go.
Folks are selling the newcomers short
The Buckeyes are losing three of the best players from a team that wasn’t especially good to begin with, and it’s true, the incoming recruiting class isn’t full of five-star, national prospects. But, it’s possible that media and fans are selling the incoming additions a little short.
For one, incoming freshman big man Kaleb Wesson isn’t some underrecruited, two-star player. He’s the top 2017 player in Ohio, a top 70 national recruit, and a high four-star player. The dude was also named the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, after a monster senior season (the first one to sign with Ohio State since 2010). By every metric, Wesson is a really dang good basketball player. He also provides something Ohio State only fitfully had last season, and hasn’t consistently had in years, and that’s low-post scoring potential. Given the rest of Ohio State’s roster construction, a guy who can manufacture easier baskets would be in huge demand. He’s going to play no matter what, but there’s potential for him to have a significant impact.
Another big recruit that’s been forgotten a bit? Derek Funderburk. A top 75 national prospect from 2016, Funderburk redshirted last year, and has worked to transform his game into more of a wing player. He’s got great size (6’9) and great physical tools. Where he fits into the rotation, and maybe even positionally, is a bit of a wild card, but the potential is there.
Under other circumstances, Braxton Beverly might be a redshirt candidate, but given the current lack of depth at guard, he may end up playing early as well. He’s raw, but he’s shown an ability to get buckets, and lots of them, at the high school level, and there’s always room on this team for more shooters.
Addition by subtraction
The Buckeyes are losing three good basketball players, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s also fair to say that the play of JaQuan Lyle, Marc Loving, and even Trevor Thompson has been frustrating at times, especially when it comes to consistency and defensive intensity. Losing that scoring will be hard, but now Ohio State’s roster is full of players who absolutely want to be there (including young players who committed during times of tension), high effort players, and guys who badly have something to prove. It is possible that the cultural changes Matta, Jent and company needed to institute after the failed 2015 class needed additional years to stick, and that the current roster may be more receptive. Whether that’s enough to outweigh roster construction or talent, well, that’s a different question.
Young players could take a step forward
Player development, from strength and conditioning to production, has not been a strong suit of Ohio State basketball in the eyes of many fans. While that narrative isn’t totally fair in my mind (even in last year’s train wreck of a season, Trevor Thompson Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson showed real improvement), it isn’t totally off base either. But next year’s squad will get another crack at changing that story.
Micah Potter got real playing time, showed his range and shooting touch, but clearly needed to improve his defensive awareness, ability to contest shots without fouling, and his body. Andre Wesson showed flashes, and could improve more with more playing time, as his potential as a strong defender is clearly there. C.J. Jackson finally found his shooting stroke near the end of the season.
If those players, along with Funderburk, take a step forward next season, and everybody is healthy, there’s absolutely a path towards an improved season. The Buckeyes will be long, able to defend, and could have great spacing with their big man rotation. There are pieces there. Will they start to develop more fully in time?
This roster probably isn’t done yet
After the departures of Thompson, Bell and Lyle, there’s open spots on this team. The Buckeyes are still pursing a few 2017 freshman (all guards), as well as a few graduate transfer options. The odds are pretty good that the roster as we know it now will have at least one, maybe two additions. If the Buckeyes are able to add another lead guard candidate to spell Jackson, and perhaps a third big to take Bell’s minutes, the pathway to improvement becomes even more clear.
Even under the best circumstances, this is not a roster built for Big Ten contention. But if things break correctly, a legitimate path does exist for them to get back into the NCAAs, even if that isn’t the most likely scenario.
Later this week, we’ll run a more pessimistic look at next season, and you can let us know which one you think is more probable.