LAST SEASON – OSU rolled out an extremely young team and though its freshman class was highly regarded, this wasn’t a group in the realm of other strong classes Thad Matta has had, where talent would be enough to override inexperience. The Buckeyes often looked like exactly what they were…a young team struggling to find its way and giving inconsistent performances as a result.

OSU ended up with a record that didn’t look half bad, 21-14 overall and 11-7 in the league. Normally, that makes you a Tournament team in the Big Ten, but the Bucks were hurt by both the relatively down nature of the conference’s RPI and the lack of many marquee wins among those victories they had. So they ended up making a two game cameo in the NIT. After the season, Matta saw the departure of several players. That in and of itself is not unheard of in his program, as he’s often had guys who weren’t seeing consistent minutes leave for greener pastures. This was a little different, however, in that the three freshmen who left (Daniel Giddens, AJ Harris and Mickey Mitchell) all played at least 13 mpg and all started several games. It’s left OSU with a little bit different mix than one anticipated they’d have last March, but this is still a team with some good young talent.

THIS SEASON

JaQuan Lyle would drive me crazy if I were a Buck fan. He has obvious gifts but at times his decision making and attitude is sorely lacking. Yet, there is little doubt that any significant improvement this team makes is likely going to be tied to him taking big steps forward in maturity AND game. Lyle is 6’5″ and physically strong. He has an ability to get to the rim and finish well, even through contact. That is his strength offensively and when he plays to it, he’s a very tough cover. The problem is that he settles too often for the deep ball and when you only shoot 25% from three, it’s probably not a good idea to take almost 40% of your shots from the floor from distance. His passing is somewhat of a similar issue…he is capable of making plays for others when he’s focused on making the right play, but too often goes for the home run. There are some obvious parallels between he and Denzel Valentine, except that you never had the sense Denzel was primarily selfish in his approach, and I do get that from Lyle. That’s the biggest thing he can do to improve, show focus on “we” instead of “me”

OSU won’t likely start another “true” guard. Nominally, the other guard will be 6’7″ senior Marc Loving. Loving led OSU in scoring at 14 ppg but he still had plenty of struggles during his junior year. He is a pure shooter who went through a long cold streak, ending up hitting just 34% from deep. He has the potential to be a 40% plus guy. On the positive side, he showed more willingness to vary his offensive game last season and he also averaged 5.3 rpg, both indicating some growth in his mentality as well as his game.

Kam Williams is an athletic 6’3″ junior who will play a significant role off the bench. Last season was a bit of a breakthrough for him, as he became the only reliable deep shooter on the roster (43%) and scored 8.3 ppg off the bench in an instant offense type role. I would expect him to be used similarly this year, brought in when the Bucks need an offensive boost. WIlliams also has active hands, though, so he’s not just a shooter…he can be a disruptive defender as well.

OSU made a couple of late additions to its recruiting class after the rash of transfers came in. CJ Jackson is a JUCO point guard who has 3 years of eligibility left. He was productive in his one year at that level and played prep school ball at Monteverde in Florida, so there’s some reason to suspect he may be able to help at least in a reserve role. He was a plus 40% three point shooter last year, so he may be able to give OSU a boost in an area where they need it. If he can effectively run the offense as well, he should be able to at least absorb the 13 mpg AJ Harris received last season, and maybe even expand that role a bit. Andre Wesson is a 6’5″ wing who has Buckeye bloodlines…his father played at OSU and his younger brother Kaleb (a more highly regarded prospect and a huge individual) will join him in Columbus next season. I’ve seen Wesson play…he didn’t appear to be a Big Ten level player to me last spring (teammate Ibi Watson, who ended up at Michigan, was far more impressive on the same AAU team) but they’re talking about him as something of a defensive specialist, so maybe he can carve out a role for himself that way over time. I don’t expect he’ll see early minutes, though, unless injuries really hit hard.

Upfront, the biggest news is that they expect 6’4″ undersized power forward Jae’Sean Tate to be fully recovered from his injury and that is a big deal for OSU. He may not be the most gifted Buckeye but he is their hardest worker and I think he’s also the one guy with enough presence to become a leader and keep the more erratic personalities on the roster in line. Tate has a top line motor and it led him to average 11.7ppg and 6.4rpg, but I think he’s capable of even more. He doesn’t have the passing element of Draymond Green’s game, but otherwise there are a lot of similarities to where Day Day was in college, including wingspan that allows Tate to play much bigger than his listed height. I really like this guy and if he’s healthy the whole way, he can lead this group.

Keita Bates-Diop is a 6’8″ forward who was highly regarded coming out of HS and then had a bit of a disappointing freshman season. However, he put all that behind him last year, averaging 11.8 ppg and 6.4 rpg. He’s a smooth, athletic guy with size and skill. His deep shooting touch was, like most of his teammates, erratic last season but as with Loving, he’s got the potential to be very good from out there. The nice thing is that’s not the only way he can score, as he uses his length and athleticism to get to the rim.

Trevor Thompson started 28 games last season and though he showed potential, for some reason he decided to declare for the NBA Draft. Fortunately sanity prevailed and he opted to return and the 6’11’ junior should once again be the starting 5 man. His primary contribution comes at the defensive end, where he’s a shotblocker. He did also average 5.1 rpg, pretty solid for a guy who only averaged 18 mpg. For now, expect him to remain primarily a defender and rebounder.

David Bell is the only returning frontcourt backup. The 6’10” sophomore played sparingly last season and was always seen as a project. It’s unclear whether his role will expand, given that OSU added a couple of young big men in this incoming class.

Derek Funderburk was the highest rated recruit in the Buck class. I have to say, having seen him last year, I”m not a big fan. He passes the look test…he’s 6’9″ and very athletic for a guy that size. At times, he can make a play based on that length and burst that makes it easy to understand why he was heavily recruited, but I thought his effort was inconsistent and he plays like a guy who is more skilled than he happens to be at this point. I’m sure he’ll play a role because they’ll need some interior depth and he should have some moments, but I’m not sure he’s a star in the making.

Micah Potter is a 6’10” freshman who probably can leapfrog Bell in the pecking order, but I’m not sure there’s enough game there for him to be much more than a spot duty guy, at least early on. He has some toughness to him but he’s a bit of a limited athlete.

BOTTOM LINE – If OSU hadn’t had the turnover in April with their roster, I’d have them a couple of notches higher. I thought Giddens showed he might be ready to start and Mitchell made the Bucks better when he started to see more minutes. So while neither was likely to be an All Big Ten player, they were significant losses for the near term IMO.

As it stands, this should be a pretty good team and one with a chance to get back to the real Tournament. OSU was very good defensively last season, especially given their youth. They have tremendous size and yet they’re good enough athletically that they can also hang with smaller, quicker teams. I don’t worry about them on the defensive end…they’re going to be one of the better groups in the league and they’ll also board well.

The big issue is on offense, both overall and especially from deep. OSU shot 33% from three last season…that number probably needs to come up at least 3 or 4 percentage points to see real progress. Overall, things depend a great deal on JaQuan Lyle and his growth and increased maturity. If he can rein in his tendency to get tunnel vision, start sharing the ball as a primary objective, and just play a bit smarter overall, this team can finish even higher than 7th. I’m not sure if I believe all of those things will happen enough to make OSU a contender, but the potential is there.