There may be no team in the Big Ten more eager to get the season underway than Ohio State, if only to get back on the court for the first time since being bounced by Dayton in the NCAA tournament last March. The upset defeat has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Buckeyes for the past seven months, who have had no opportunity to make amends.
"They wanted it more than us," senior Sam Thompson said of the loss to Dayton. "That was us just not being tough enough to finish the game, to make the necessary plays down the stretch, defensively and offensively, to win basketball games."
This is a much different team, with just five rotation players returning and as many as five newcomers expected to see significant minutes. Ohio State has a lot of questions, and it begins with the effort that the team showed the last time it stepped on the court.
"We really wanted to focus on getting back to the ‘Ohio State Way' and becoming the team that we've been in the past," Thompson said.
As preseason practices wrap up and the opener looms, we take a look at some of the reasons the Buckeyes may fall short of that goal in 2014-15.
The Bright Lights
As lauded as Ohio State's incoming recruiting class is, the fact remains that these are freshmen who have never before laced them up for a college basketball game. With three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman expected to crack the rotation, the Buckeyes are a team with a decent amount of inexperience.
The only solution to inexperience is playing time, which the newcomers should get. The question is how quickly they adapt to the college game and develop their skills. The word from Columbus is that D'Angelo Russell, Jae'Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop, and Kam Williams have not played like freshmen in the preseason. For the Buckeyes to propel themselves beyond the disappointments of last season, that will need to carry over to the regular season.
Yes, the team also has four seniors in Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, and Trey McDonald, as well as graduate transfer Anthony Lee. This group is experienced and will be expected to lead, but they can't play the games for the newcomers. If the bright lights and bigger stage prove to be too much for Matta's freshmen, it could be a long, painful learning experience of a season.
A Tough Slate
Everyone who has paid any attention to college basketball the past few seasons knows how tough the Big Ten is as a conference. With five teams ranked in the initial AP Top 25 poll, this promises to be another dogfight of a season in the conference.
The brutality of the Big Ten schedule is nothing new, but the quality of Ohio State's non-conference schedule is. Strength of schedule in the early season has long been a point of contention for Matta, and the lack of quality competition prior to conference play seemed to serve to artificially inflate expectations a season ago when the Buckeyes entered conference play undefeated.
This season, cream puffs such as UMass-Lowell, High Point, and North Carolina A&T still populate the majority of the non-conference schedule, but Ohio State will also be traveling to Louisville to take on the Cardinals in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and taking part in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic against North Carolina at the United Center in Chicago. The Cardinals enter the season ranked No. 8 by the AP, while the Tar Heels are No. 6. Added to the ranked Big Ten rivals on the schedule, the Buckeyes have seven games on the schedule against ranked teams, a number that could inflate as the season progresses.
As I've mentioned, Ohio State has a number of freshmen who are expected to contribute this season, and the tougher slate early in their careers poses the danger of being too much too soon. If the youngsters struggle early on, big games on big stages could derail the Buckeyes before they even reach the Big Ten schedule.
All indications are that Ohio State should be a much-improved shooting team this year. After the past couple of seasons, this is welcome news to fans of the scarlet and grey. Still, news of better perimeter scoring has been greatly exaggerated before, and until the Buckeyes prove it on the court, it is a cause for concern.
On paper, the additions of Russell, Bates-Diop, Tate, Williams, and Lee should make for marked improvement in the shooting phase of the game. Scott and Thompson are also said to have worked tirelessly during the offseason to make themselves more consistent outside threats.
But the Buckeyes shot just 32 percent from three-point range as a team a season ago, and too often could not find anyone to knock down a jumper. Matta's best teams in Columbus have been able to play inside-out, with bigs like Greg Oden and Jared Sullinger feeding shooters like Jamar Butler, Ron Lewis, Jon Diebler, and William Buford out of the post. For this season's Buckeyes to enjoy the sort of success that teams of the past have had, perimeter shooting is top priority.
No Alpha Dog
Last year's offensive struggles for Ohio State are well-documented. After losing Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas in consecutive seasons, the Buckeyes lacked a go-to option when they needed buckets most. Entering last season, it was thought that LaQuinton Ross would be the one to step up and fill that role, and while he did lead the team in scoring, was far from the consistent scorer that was needed.
This team has no bona fide, established scorer, and Matta has been quoted as saying he would like to see four or five players average 12-15 points. Russell, who was thought by many to be the best pure scorer in his recruiting class, may be the answer to the alpha dog question. That's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a freshman, though it would appear the potential is there.
If the Buckeyes find themselves without a true Number 1 option on offense, a lot of the same stagnation and bricklaying that fans grew accustomed to last season could be on tap once again. As we saw, the defense can keep Ohio State competitive on nights when the shots aren't falling, but won't be enough to win when it counts the most.