It's been a long offseason for Thad Matta and his Ohio State basketball team after last March's early exit from the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes, perhaps more than any other Big Ten team, just want the new season to get started and put the upset loss to Dayton squarely in the rearview.
"We know how much losing in the first round really sucks and how much that really hurt us," senior Shannon Scott said at Big Ten Media Day. "We didn't wanna watch any game after that, so as a point guard, as the leader of this team, I've really gotta get my team in the best position to get back to the Final Four and go from there."
Ohio State took its first step into the new season on Sunday in an exhibition game against Division II Walsh. Matta's squad ran away with a 40-point victory, 77-37, and had four players in double-figures.
"We've only been playing each other for such a long time, so it felt good to play someone else and get all the cobwebs out," said redshirt freshman guard Kam Williams after the game.
Highly touted freshman guard D'Angelo Russell led the way with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, knocking down 4-8 from three-point range and drawing high praise from his coach.
"I think that you saw he has a different pace about him," Matta said. "He sees things that other freshmen don't and that's good. That is really unique for a freshman."
Russell and his teammates will tip it off for real tomorrow against UMass-Lowell. What should we watch for when they do?
Projected Starting Lineup
G - Sr Shannon Scott (6'1")
G - Fr D'Angelo Russell (6'5")
F - Sr Sam Thompson (6'7")
F - GS Anthony Lee (6'9")
C - Sr Amir Williams (6'11")
The first thing that jumps out from Ohio State's projected starters is their experience, as graduate student transfer Anthony Lee joins seniors Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams. The bench will be a little more green, with senior big man Trey McDonald and sophomore wing Marc Loving being the only reserves who have played a college game. Kam Williams and true freshmen Jae'Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop expect to see minutes off the bench in their first collegiate seasons. Tate, in particular, impressed during the Walsh game, scoring 10 points and grabbing 8 boards, including 5 on the offensive glass.
What To Watch For
Bright Lights & Big Stages - The Buckeyes will play two marquee non-conference games away from the friendly confines of Value City Arena. The team travels to Louisville on December 2nd to take on a Cardinals team that is ranked No. 8 in the preseason AP poll as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and hooks up with the No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels on December 20th in Chicago's United Center as part of the inaugural CBS Sports Classic. Big early tests like these should give Ohio State a good barometer of where they are in their development as a team before conference play gets underway.
Shannon Scott versus Marcus Paige - When the Buckeyes and Tar Heels take the court, the marquee matchup may well be between the teams' point guards. Paige was fourth in the ACC in scoring a season ago, averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 39 percent from long range, and spearheaded the success Roy Williams' squad experienced in the second of the year. Paige is also an expert distributor of the basketball, dishing out 4.2 assists per game, which was good for sixth in the conference. The junior from Marion, Iowa, who was named a preseason AP All-America, will provide a stout test for Ohio State's perimeter defense, and for two-time All-Big Ten Defensive Team honoree Scott. Scott's quick hands and sound defensive instincts have many believing he could walk away with Defensive Player of the Year in the conference come the spring.
Ohio State's frontcourt versus Montrezl Harrell - The addition of Lee to returning seniors Williams and McDonald in the paint gives the Buckeyes a little more versatility in the looks they can show opposing teams down low. When Harrell and the Cardinals host Ohio State, it will be a significant test for the bigs. Harrell, a junior, was also named a preseason AP All-American after averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for Rick Pitino as a sophomore. With the departures of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, the 6'8" North Carolina native will be much more of a focal point of the offense this year, and the Buckeye big men may need all 15 fouls they have between them to slow him down.
Freshmen impact - Russell is already getting attention from pro scouts, and it seems Tate is primed to become a quintessential Matta "glue guy," but the Buckeyes have four newcomers poised to see significant playing time this season, and freshmen always need a little time to adjust to the college game. How quickly this quartet develops will go a long way towards determining how successful this Ohio State team will be, particularly once Big Ten play starts. The early reviews have been positive, but this will be one of the key storylines to watch as the season progresses.
"I've been very, very pleased with the freshman class," Matta said at Big Ten Media Days. "I couldn't be happier with how they've been playing so far."
Who To Watch For
Throughout our preview stories on Ohio State at BT Powerhouse, we've spent a lot of time talking about Russell and Scott. And with good reason. They are the two most critical players on Matta's roster this season. But for the Buckeyes to be a factor in the Big Ten and beyond, several others will need to step up their games.
Sam Thompson - There's no denying the freakish athletic ability of the Buckeyes' human highlight reel, but Thompson has been far from consistent in his first three years in scarlet and grey. Now a senior, Ohio State will be counting on the Chicago product to show a more complete game, which means being more of a threat with his jump shot and using his leaping ability to become a factor on the glass.
Amir Williams - It is often forgotten that Williams arrived in Columbus as a McDonald's All-American. The mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma that has frustrated Buckeye fans for three years has the size and skill to become a legitimate force in the paint, but has never managed to put it together for any sustainable amount of time. With the offensive upgrades Ohio State seems to have made, the former Detroit Country Day star won't be asked to do too much on the offensive end. Where Williams needs to become more of a factor is on the boards and in altering shots at the rim.
Anthony Lee - Lee averaged 13.6 points per game for the Owls last season, and gives Matta something he hasn't had the past couple of seasons as a big man that can stretch the defense. Considering the scoring contributions Ohio State received from its bigs this past season, Lee should be an upgrade regardless of efficiency. But where his impact may really be felt is on the glass. A year ago, Lee averaged 8.6 rebounds a game, and over 37 percent of those came on the offensive boards. Along with Williams, the Maryland native will be expected to give the Buckeyes an edge on the glass throughout the season.
Marc Loving - As the only member of the team who is not playing his first or his final season of college ball, Loving often gets lost in the shuffle. The former Ohio Mr. Basketball had an up-and-down freshman campaign for the Buckeyes a season ago, but showed flashes of being a player that can impact a game from the perimeter and in slashing to the hoop. It's still not apparent where Loving will fit into Matta's rotation, but he should see minutes at the three and possibly at the four when the team goes with a smaller lineup.
A month and a half ago, I made a bold prediction that Ohio State could enter conference play undefeated. While that was bold, I don't necessarily think it's probable. It is very possible that the Buckeyes drop both of their marquee non-conference games and tip-off the Big Ten schedule 11-2.
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.
Still, Ohio State's Big Ten schedule is pretty favorable. With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers this season, the conference schedule has been changed to ensure that every team has an opportunity to personally welcome the new entrants. As a result, Ohio State, which finished fifth in the Big Ten a year ago, will only face the four squads that finished ahead of them five times. The Buckeyes will face Michigan twice, but only see Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska once apiece. Only the matchup with the Spartans is on the road. Given that slate, it is conceivable the Buckeyes could get through conference play with only three or four losses, provided they don't do anything crazy like getting swept by Penn State again.
If Ohio State arrives at Selection Sunday with only a handful of regular season losses and its usual solid showing in the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes will be in line for a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament, and poised to make a postseason run that will turn last season's disappointments into ancient history.