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How important is the 2014-15 season for Ohio State?

After a disappointing early exit in the NCAA tournament, the Buckeyes look to reload and prove they deserve mention among the nation's elite programs

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Since Thad Matta took the reins of the Ohio State basketball program, the Buckeyes have become a perennial contender in the Big Ten and a frequent inhabitant of the top ten in national polls. Still, it's hard to argue that last season wasn't a disappointment, finishing a distant fifth in the conference standings and being bounced by Dayton in their first NCAA tournament game after having been ranked as high as third in the country in December.

Ohio State is moving forward into an uncertain future. The team will be replacing its top three scorers from a year ago and faces a leadership void with the departure of highly-decorated seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Next season will serve to help answer an important question related to the Buckeyes' status as an elite college basketball program: does Ohio State rebuild or reload?

From a recruiting standpoint, no one can argue that Matta and his staff aren't stellar, bringing highly-lauded talent to Columbus year after year. But questions linger as to how effective the program is in developing players once they arrive on campus, as several blue chip recruits have failed to meet expectations.

The rising seniors for Ohio State were a consensus top-ten recruiting class in 2011, but have largely underachieved. That class featured two McDonald's All-Americans in Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, but neither has had the sort of impact that was expected in their first three years.

Scott has been an erratic offensive player to say the least, struggling to find his shot and provide consistent scoring, but was named to the Big Ten's All-Defensive team as a junior. With Craft gone, responsibility for Ohio State's signature stifling perimeter defense will fall largely on his shoulders. Scott will also serve as the Buckeyes' primary ball-handler and must prove he can initiate the offense effectively for the team to bounce back and contend in the conference.

Williams, too, has failed to develop as an offensive player during his tenure in Columbus, and has not come close to reaching his potential as a rebounder and rim protector. The void in the paint prompted Ohio State to look for outside help, resulting in the transfers of Anthony Lee from Temple and Trevor Thompson from Virginia Tech. Lee is expected to start right away next to Williams at power forward, while Thompson will likely have to sit out a year before donning the scarlet and grey.

A jump in offensive production from Scott (7.5 ppg), Williams (7.8 ppg), and fellow senior Sam Thompson (7.9 ppg) will be crucial as the Buckeyes try to replace the trio of Craft, Smith, and leading scorer LaQuinton Ross and their 36 points per contest. Their legacy, as well as national perception of the program as a whole, will be highly dependent on the Buckeyes shaking off last season's disappointments.

Ohio State's seniors are facing an important season for another reason as well, as they will be called upon to provide leadership to the incoming freshmen, another consensus top-ten recruiting class. Three true freshmen are expected to see significant playing time for the Buckeyes next season, and their development will go a long way towards determining how high the team can rise.

The incoming class is led by D'Angelo Russell, a McDonald's All-American himself and the No. 21 player in the country according to Rivals. The smooth shooting Russell will compete for a starting job in the backcourt from day one, and is regarded as an elite-level scorer, something the Buckeyes sorely need.

Russell will be joined by small forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate, as well as redshirt freshman guard Kameron Williams, who missed last season due to a bout with mono early in the season that set back his development, as newcomers who will be relied upon to provide an upgrade in shooting and scoring for Ohio State. The question of how quickly these talented new players can come of age will be central all season long.

If the lights do not prove to be too bright for the freshmen, Ohio State could have its deepest team in years. Adding Russell and company to the senior class and sophomore Marc Loving gives Matta the option of going ten-deep in his rotation. However, if the newcomers fail to develop and the seniors continue to underwhelm, it could be another disappointing year, and lead to a second straight early end to the season.

Ohio State will be facing one of its toughest non-conference schedules in years, 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 increased competition and scrutiny early on will provide a solid indication of where the team stands before conference play begins. Also, with another solid recruiting class already taking shape for 2015, a strong showing by the Buckeyes in such high-profile games could really boost momentum on the recruiting trail.

Fans of the scarlet and grey have become accustomed to the winning ways that have been enjoyed throughout Matta's tenure, and it has raised the program's standing across the country. Still, Ohio State is largely seen as a football school. To make the jump to being considered a true basketball powerhouse, the team must continue to compete for championships in the Big Ten and nationally. After a disappointing season, it is key for the Buckeyes to rebound and prove that they can reload.