There was a feeling that OSU might be headed back to the Tournament after missing it in 15-16 with an extremely young group. A handful of players from that ’15 freshman class had transferred and word was that the “bad apples” had been tossed from the barrel and the Bucks would be back to something more closely approximating their usual performance level. That didn’t happen. They were dealt a blow when wing Keita Bates-Diop was injured after just 9 games, but the issues were deeper than that. OSU never seemed to be a coherent team, and part of that was due to the dreaded “bad chemistry” tag that can get tossed around too easily in many instances but in this case seemed on the money. I think you can go too far in attempting to divine what’s really going on within a program by watching things like body language, facial expressions, etc. but in the OSU case, it did all seem to be there for everyone to see. This team was 17-15 overall and 7-11 in the league, and truthfully they should have been better in a year where the conference was largely transitioning, with even younger teams than the Bucks dotting the Big Ten landscape. Offensively, they got a bit better once CJ Jackson emerged as a legitimate option at the point but not enough to be truly impactful on the bottom line. Any improvement there was more than offset by a backslide on the defensive end, where OSU slipped from 43 in adjusted defense in 2016 to 99th nationally last year. That’s one thing you could always count on with Thad Matta teams, that they’d check at a high level. When even that stops, look out.
JaQuan Lyle – One of the weirder instances in recent league history in terms of a guy departing. Lyle was arrested in early May in his hometown of Evansville, which of course was newsworthy. However, when media went to OSU asking for info or comments, they were informed that, unbeknownst to the public, Lyle had quit the team in early April. It appears that what may have happened is that Lyle did quit the team but was attempting to get back in good graces and return to the fold, but the arrest scuttled any of those plans. The overall impact for OSU is a tough one to unpack. At times, he seemed to have turned around some things on the court last season. He shot much better (41% from 3), had almost a 2:1 assist to TO ratio and seemed to function better once he was moved off the ball. Yet, his defensive focus was often lacking and for all the offensive improvement, Lyle was still always a moment away from making a jaw droppingly bad decision. There’s an argument that OSU will be better off without a guy who was a chemistry issue according to many. We’ll see.
Marc Loving – Here’s another guy who just seemed to be a drain on any good vibes last season. He was the second leading scorer on the team at 12.3ppg, shot well from deep (38%) and when he was locked in was a legitimate offenisve weapon. Yet, watching him, you never got the sense Loving truly bought into what OSU was trying to do or that he even particularly cared. He didn’t strike me that way early on in Columbus and I’m not sure what changed, but he just never became the kind of versatile scorer I thought he would be when they signed him.
Trevor Thompson – Another early entry and this one pretty much unequivcally hurts the Bucks. Thompson really made some strides last season. He averaged double digits in scoring, grabbed 9.2 rpg and was a shot blocking presence on defense. You can make a very good argument that he gave the Bucks their best post play since Jared Sullinger left in 2012. Yet, Thompson seemed to be in a hurry to put college behind him. He’d declared the year prior before coming back, but this time made the decision to become a pro, despite the fact that he stands virtually no chance of being drafted. Sometimes that’s how it goes.
David Bell – Bell was a project big man who never developed enough to earn a regular rotation spot for OSU, and he apparently decided that plus family issues (he has a pregnant girlfriend who relocated to Florida) was enough to transfer to Jacksonville. In his time at OSU, Bell contrbuted relatively little, so the oncourt loss here seems to be fairly minimal.
Jae’Sean Tate – If Matta had 2 or 3 more kids like Tate, his problems would be over. He’s an undersized 4 who gets a lot done via wingspan, motor and toughness. What separates him from truly elite guys of his physical type like Draymond Green is that he’s never developed the ball skills (jumpshooting and passing) which make them great. He’s very good at the collegiate level, however. 14.3ppg and 6.4 rpg tell some of the story but to me, it’s at least as big a deal that he actually seems to care about winning. He’s a perfect fit for Matta’s teams prior to the past 2-3 years…it’s a shame that Thad wasn’t able to secure more guys who shared that approach to bring in with him.
Keita Bates-Diop – His injury definitely hurt last year’s team, and it’s critical that he’s 100% and the same guy he was as a sophomore for this year’s OSU squad to do anything. When he’s right, Bates-Diop is a multi faceted player. As a soph, he averaged 11.8ppg and 6.4 rpg, while also playing quality defense. He’s capable of playing both on the wing and at the 4, but with this team’s perimeter needs I expect him to be at the wing most often. He does need to shoot better from deep (only 32% as a soph and 20% in limited action last year before getting hurt). If there’s one guy with serious potential to surprise on this team, it’s him, though. The physical tools and skill set is present for more production than he’s given thus far.
Kam Williams – Williams was another weird one. Declared for the draft in a very low key fashion. Then there were stories that he he’d pulled out. Then there were stories disputing that. Finally, near the deadline he confirmed that he was returning to Columbus for his senior season. OSU desperately needed him to do that, as he has starting experience and at least a competent perimeter game, two things sorely lacking on this roster without him. Williams was a 38% 3 point shooter last year but that was down from 44% as a soph…any move back toward the latter realm would be very much welcome. At earlier stages in his career, it seemed Matta was trying to develop him into a point guard or at least a guy capable of giving them some minutes on the ball. That seems to be over now and probably for the best, as to me Williams is pretty much a scorer on offense.
CJ Jackson – Jackson emerged as a viable point guard during last season and I think that was largely responsible for OSU’s offensive improvement. He proved to be a good decision maker and showed enough dynamism off the dribble to suggest that he’ll be able to create for teammates consistently. Jackson would do himself some good by developing a more consistent jumper, but he at least gave this team some stability at the position.
Micah Potter – I really like Potter, a 6’10” 4/5 guy who showed some versatility on offense and some overall toughness and compete level during his freshman season. He only shot 33% from deep but I think he’s headed for better numbers as he matures. He’s got a good combination of size, athletic ability and skill set. I’m not saying I see an All Big Ten future for him, but he’s already demonstrated more than I expected, given what I’d seen of him in AAU. He should be a good pick and pop option for OSU and yet also has at least a rudimentary post game.
Andre Wesson – Wesson was a late additon to last year’s class for Matta and as it ended up, he proved to be a valuable player in the OSU rotation. A 6’6” wing, Wesson only averaged 2.3 ppg in about 11 mpg but his role seemed to increase as the season went along. He doesn’t possess the attributes to be a great player at this level IMO but could continue to develop into a jack-of-all-trades guy who gives you a boost off the bench.
Kaleb Wesson – Kaleb is the younger but bigger (MUCH bigger) brother of Andre Wesson. The 6’9” 300lbs post has a lot of conditioning work to do but he’ll be counted on to help immediately and I think he can provide something, at least in limited minutes. Wesson isn’t the post player someone like Nick Ward is, but he does have some decent footwork and his size helps him create space. He’s also got some face up ability, as I’ve seen him hit 15-18 footers in AAU with enough regularity that I think it’ll be a weapon for him in the Big Ten. The major issue here is how many minutes Matta can realistically get out of him. I’m guessing it’ll be capped at no more than 18-20, which will limit his impact some, but he’s still a critical element of this year’s team.
Derek Funderburk – Funderburk redshirted last season and he needed to in order to put some additional weight on his frame. He’s 6’9” and reasonably athletic for a guy that size, but strength and toughness was an issue when I saw him play in AAU. If Matta can reach him in those areas and help him develop some physically, Funderburk has the potential to be a quality Big Ten starter, but those are big “ifs.”
Braxton Beverly – Beverly is a 5’10” point guard signed out of Hargrave Military Academy. He was originally a Miami (OH) signee in last year’s class but elected to do a post grad year at Hargrave and reclassify into 2017. His claim to fame is breaking Terry Rozier’s school record for points in a game as he had a 70 point outing two seasons ago at Hargrave. Expectations are that he can help off the bench with heady, tough play at the point (have I hit all the cliches?) and with maturity might develop into a guy capable of starting as an upperclassman. For a team which has struggled at the point recently, he can’t help but be a positive presence, just to give Matta another option.
I’ve been a big skeptic in re: rumors about Matta being fired, retiring, etc. However, as we enter 17-18, I’m finally on board that this may be a make or break year for Matta’s tenure in Columbus. What’s clear is that he has health concerns…those are real and it’s limiting him in terms of recruiting and maybe even beyond that. In a sense, he’s a victim of his own success, as Matta raised the bar at OSU from what had been a feast or famine program into one where consistent high level results became the norm for about a decade. If they miss the Tournament again, that’ll be three straight failures and I don’t know that OSU will tolerate that, even from a guy with Matta’s resume.
I don’t hold out a ton of hope for this team defying the odds and getting to the Dance. Tate and Bates Diop are both very good players, but OSU’s lack of depth and perimeter shooting look to be serious issues to me. There’s enough here to spring the odd upset over higher echelon teams, but not enough to win with consistency IMO.