It is pretty safe to assume that with less than a month to go before the Ohio State football team opens fall camp, that few would have predicted the current level of discussion surrounding the Ohio State basketball team. However, the unusually-timed firing of the program’s winningest coach, the hiring of a young replacement on the rise, and unprecedented roster moves have made June and early July somewhat of a hot stove league for Buckeye basketball fans.
With Friday’s commitment and reclassification of Musa Jallow, OSU finally has a roster capable of 5-on-5 scrimmages, and, save a similar decision from Eric Ayala, and any preferred walk-ons added, the current squad is likely to be what Chris Holtmann has to work with during his first season in Columbus.
So, in a sport dominated by young players, what should the expectations be for the 2017-2018 Ohio State men’s basketball team?
When speaking of either sports or life, my grandfather used to say, “Expect the worst; hope for the best.” Since “the worst” is fresh in the mind of any OSU basketball fan, we should look at what the realistic best might be for the current configuration of Buckeyes.
Let’s start by analyzing the roster; first what’s coming back.
There is no way around it: the 2016-2017 Ohio State basketball season was a disappointment for everyone involved with, or a fan of, the program. Since then, athletic director Gene Smith has replaced head coach Thad Matta, and players have graduated, gone pro, or transferred, leaving only six scholarship players from last season, three true freshmen, and a walk-on.
Following a second-straight season missing out on the NCAA tournament, it is easy to forget just how close the team’s fortunes were to being very different. Their final 17-15 record included eight games that the Buckeyes lost by two possessions or less. If half of those had gone their way, OSU would have been 21-11, at least in the NIT Tournament, and Matta might still be the team’s coach. However, that is not how things turned out.
Gone from that squad are contributors like Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, and Trevor Thompson. Those three (along with now departed David Bell and walk-on Jimmy Jent) accounted for just over 50 percent of the Buckeyes’ scoring last season. However, the returners do include the team’s top-scorer Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 ppg), as well as a reportedly healthy Keita Bates-Diop.
KBD averaged 9.7 in an injury-shortened nine-game season, but the previous year as a sophomore, he was the team’s second leading scorer with 11.8. Much will be expected of these two veterans, both from a production and leadership standpoint; and, considering their first three seasons in Columbus, I think it is a safe assumption to say that they appear up to the task.
In his first few weeks on the job, Holtmann has said that he intends for his version of the Buckeyes to play a more up-tempo style of ball than as has been seen from previous incarnations. This is probably a smart strategic move, given that Tate and KBD are the only returning players who have shown any desire to bang bodies down low, and, despite their selfless effort, they are a bit undersized to consistently be doing battle on the blocks in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
This also should play to the strengths of two of Ohio State’s returning guards, who will likely have the ball in their hands more than in previous years. JuCo transfer C.J. Jackson became a much-needed bolt of energy off of the bench last season, and Kam Williams proved to be capable of more than just hitting the deep ball, eventually working his way into the starting rotation.
This season, it is expected that these two, along with Tate, will handle the point guard duties, unless a newcomer surprises and takes the reigns. Both Jackson and Williams have high motors and can go from one end of the floor to the other incredibly quickly, so, if they are able to keep the turnovers at a minimum (both averaged about one and a half per game last year), this style could allow them increased opportunities to succeed.
Also, for the Scarlet and Gray to regain relevance in the Big Ten, it would be beneficial if sophomore Micah Potter provided more consistency than he did a season ago. Despite starting for half of the season, he averaged only 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds a game, often preferring to shoot threes and let Thompson clean up down low. With a year of collegiate competition and training now under his belt, it would be nice if Potter was able to find a more healthy balance of finesse and physical in his game.
While Potter might again be fighting for playing time with a more physical big man (this time true freshman Kaleb Wesson), for the Buckeyes to achieve their optimal outcome, Potter will need to contribute.
Another key factor in analyzing the 2016-2017 squad is the fact that they never seemed to congeal as a cohesive unit. Often times, the team seemed to be less than the sum of its objectively talented parts. The last few years of the Matta Era were haunted by the idea that the coach and his staff couldn’t build a unit of complementary players that “wanted to be Buckeyes.”
Whatever that means, the results were often teams that underachieved and looked far better on paper than they did on the court. Will that change under Holtmann? Who knows. But let’s be honest, it can’t get much worse.
The 2017 Ohio State basketball recruiting class currently sits at just three players, and while the possibility (eventuality?) remains of others being added in the coming weeks, the three Holtmann already has are pretty darn good.
Kaleb Wesson, a 6-foot-9, 290-pound center is a four-star, top-ranked prospect in the state of Ohio. The Gatorade Player of the Year provides something that the Buckeyes haven’t had consistently in years; a physical, low-post scoring threat. Given the roster turnover, it is a distinct possibility that the big man starts from Day One. If he is able to scratch the surface of the potential that experts see in him, he could provide the wing-heavy squad with an anchor in the paint.
With Wesson occupying the top in-state slot, 6-foot-6, 205-pound forward Kyle Young took the No. 2 position. Having originally signed with Butler, the Massillon-native flipped to the Buckeyes shortly after Holtmann took over in Columbus. Unlike Wesson, Young is likely coming in to play the three (or maybe the four, depending on who else is on the floor), which is really the only position at which the Buckeyes have depth.
So, I would imagine that Young would be bringing his ability to stretch the floor off of the bench, potentially as the team’s sixth man. However, given the team’s lack of depth, it is easy to see him getting a considerable amount of playing time, and contributing early.
The same is likely true for Jallow. On Friday morning, the Bloomington, Ind., native was a top 200 prospect in the class of 2018, but after reclassifying to 2017, he became Ohio State’s third four-star commit in the class.
At 6-foot-5, Young is not a lights-out shooter, but instead relies on his athleticism to create scoring opportunities at the rim or in the mid-range. However, he also has proven to be an excellent defensive player, with the ability to cover both guards and small forwards.
The flexibility that he provides should allow Holtmann to employ him in a number of different situations, likely spelling Jackson and Williams.
Last week, Holtmann said that they were still looking to add bodies to the roster for the fall, but indicated that they would likely be of the preferred walk-on variety. Obviously, Jallow is a much more talented piece than teams are normally likely to pick up this late in the game, but if OSU’s new coaching staff can somehow pull off one more big, last-minute commitment, it will dramatically change how fans (and the team) looks at the 2017-2018 season.
Considering what the Buckeyes have coming back and coming in, if I am going to follow my grandfather’s sage advice, I would expect the Buckeyes to go into the 2018 Big Ten Tournament with a chance (even if it’s an unlikely one) of playing their way into the Big Dance, only to squander the opportunity and be relegated to the NIT, where the young team impresses with an Elite 8 run.
However, I am hoping for a legendary, record-breaking season that will spawn books, a 30 for 30 documentary, and another banner hanging in the Schottenstein Center rafters.
Sorry, Grandpa. I’m a glass half-full kind of guy.