Ohio State will tip off its new season in a little under two months, and there is optimism in the air around the program. After a disappointing early exit from the NCAA tournament last March, head coach Thad Matta will be putting a team on the floor that combines a solid base of veteran experience with a heralded class of incoming freshmen.
"The roster this year is one I'm anxious to see blend together over the course of the season," Matta said in a release from the Ohio State Athletics Department. "We have leadership and experience in a senior class that has continued to improve over the years, and a freshman class that has proven itself at the high school level."
So what is the ceiling for this Buckeyes team? Who will emerge as the next star in Columbus? Today we go out on a limb to make five bold predictions for the scarlet and grey in 2014-15.
Prediction #1: Shannon Scott will emerge as the Big Ten's best all-around point guard
Admittedly, I may be a little higher on Shannon Scott than most people. While there is no arguing that the former McDonald's All-American has underachieved during his three years at Ohio State, this will be the first season in which the team is truly his to run. Scott has the physical tools to become an all-conference player, with elite speed, a good handle, a quick first step, and strong defensive instincts. In order to make the kind of jump in his game that will make this prediction come true, he will need to find consistency in his outside shooting, use his athleticism to get into the lane more frequently on offense, and continue progressing as a defender.
Scott has been named to the All-Big Ten Defensive team the past two seasons, so he has proven his ability to be disruptive on that side of the ball. With Aaron Craft now taking up residence with the Golden State Warriors, spearheading Ohio State's perimeter defense will fall squarely on his shoulders.
The 6'1" Scott got off to a strong start offensively last season as well, scoring in double figures in three of the Buckeyes' first four games, but cooled off from the perimeter and began to defer more often as the non-conference schedule progressed, before eventually being moved to a reserve role. His aggressiveness in orchestrating the offense this season must improve.
Scott's best performance last season, which came in the Big Ten tournament against Michigan, may be the most solid indicator of his potential as an all-around threat. In a 72-69 loss to the Wolverines, he knocked down shots, drove the lane, set up his teammates, and just generally got after it to the tune of 18 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals. The Alpharetta, Georgia native shot 7-10 from the field, including 4-6 from three-point range, and keyed a Buckeye comeback in a game in which the team trailed 15-2 early and by double digits for most of the second half.
This is no knock on Yogi Ferrell, DeAndre Mathieu, or Traevon Jackson. This is only to say that the talent is evident with Scott. The question is whether he can put it all together in his final year for Ohio State and begin to reach his immense potential. If he does, he will not only prove himself to be the cream of the Big Ten's point guard crop, but will help the Buckeyes contend in the conference and beyond.
Prediction #2: A freshman will lead the Buckeyes in scoring
Perhaps this is not such a bold prediction, as Matta has a history of getting big contributions from freshman. Jared Sullinger led Ohio State in scoring as a freshman as recently as the 2010-11 season, and the current team lost its top three scorers from a year ago. With a highly-regarded incoming class of freshmen, and dismal team shooting numbers the past couple of seasons, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine a rookie becoming the go-to guy on offense. The bold prediction I'll make is who the leading scorer will be: Kam Williams.
Yes, D'Angelo Russell is seen by many as the highlight newcomer for the Buckeyes this season. And yes, Keita Bates-Diop led the team in scoring during its two-game trip to the Bahamas in August.
But Williams, a redshirt freshman who sat out last season due to an early bout with mono, has a blend of freakish athleticism and shooting skills that Matta will have to find minutes for. Though he is likely to begin the year coming off the bench behind Scott and Russell, I expect the backcourt trio to split playing time pretty evenly. After a miserable perimeter shooting season as a team last year, Williams is just the type of marksman the Buckeyes have been missing.
Teaming Williams with Russell and Bates-Diop, Ohio State should find plenty of scoring punch from this season's freshman class.
Prediction #3: Ohio State will enter conference play undefeated
This is where I expect accusations of homerism and delusion to set in, but hear me out. Ohio State ran through its non-conference schedule at 13-0 a year ago, ultimately reaching 15-0 and No. 3 in the polls before the wheels started coming off. This season, the early schedule is only marginally tougher.
A year ago, the best competition the Buckeyes saw before Big Ten play got underway was Marquette and Notre Dame, two teams that failed to make the NCAA tournament. The remainder of the schedule boasted just three tourney teams (American, North Dakota State, and Delaware), and was littered with opponents like North Florida, Bryant, and Louisiana-Monroe.
This season, cream puffs such as UMass-Lowell, High Point, and North Carolina A&T still populate the majority of the non-conference schedule. The difference is that Ohio State will also be traveling to Louisville for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and taking part in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic against North Carolina, two programs that are consistently among the nation's best. So how is it possible for the Buckeyes to enter conference play on December 30th against Iowa with an unblemished record?
The Cardinals and Tar Heels will be big tests, to be sure, as both will likely be ranked in the top ten nationally when the first official preseason polls are released. But both will be missing key cogs from seasons past when they take the floor against the Buckeyes.
Louisville, just a year removed from a national championship, lost their undisputed leaders in Russ Smith and Luke Hancock. The pair also happened to be two of the team's top three scorers, accounting for over 30 points per game combined last season. Rick Pitino's squad returns senior guards Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear and junior big man Montrezl Harrell, and brings in a strong freshman class, but will sorely miss Smith's ability to create his own shot and Hancock's long-distance shooting. Ohio State's strong perimeter defense, coupled with having three big men (Amir Williams, Anthony Lee, and Trey McDonald) to rotate against Harrell down low, make the matchup one that the Buckeyes will have every opportunity to win.
North Carolina features a young, inexperienced roster, and lost leader James Michael McAdoo, who decided to forego his senior season and went undrafted by the NBA. Last year's leading scorer Marcus Paige returns, joined by a plethora of former four and five-star recruits, but Roy Williams' squad has been bounced from March Madness in the round of 32 the past two seasons. With Ohio State's long, athletic perimeter defenders hounding Paige, will the Tar Heels have other offensive options established to share the scoring load on such a big stage?
Prediction #4: Thad Matta will win his fifth Big Ten tournament title
In the past eight years, Ohio State has won the Big Ten tournament four times, including three of the last five, and has been runner up twice. In the tourney's history, only Michigan State can equal the Buckeyes' number of titles. Matta's teams always seem to peak just in time to make a run, regardless of how the regular season plays out, and this year will be no different.
Wisconsin, which reached the Final Four last season and came within one point of advancing to the national championship game, is the favorite on paper to win the Big Ten this season, with the returns of players like Jackson, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky. Come March, though, the Buckeyes' freshmen will have gotten their seasoning, the seniors will be in familiar territory, and the rotation should be consistent, allowing for Ohio State to do what it does best.
As was seen last season, when a decidedly underwhelming Buckeye team scraped by Purdue and Nebraska before giving regular season champ Michigan a scare in the semifinals, all bets are off when a Matta-coached team hits the conference tourney. This season's roster is more balanced, more athletic, and should score more efficiently, making Ohio State a much more formidable opponent in a win-or-go-home situation.
Prediction #5: Three Buckeyes will hear their names called at the NBA Draft next summer
For seven consecutive years, beginning with Greg Oden being the top pick in 2007, Ohio State had at least one player selected in the NBA Draft, a streak that was broken this past June. While most early draft profiles for 2015 list one Buckeye (Russell) if they list any at all, I predict that three will be among the sixty picks.
Russell, who has been written about extensively the past few months at BT Powerhouse, could add to the list of one-and-done players for Matta if he puts together the kind of freshman season some expect of him. Scott, as I've already discussed, has a chance to prove himself as the Big Ten's best point guard. If he does, his speed, defense, and athleticism will land him on someone's draft board. Which leaves one more name: Sam Thompson.
Thompson is easily the most athletic player on the team, and possibly in the country. At 6'7", the wiry Chicago product can defend multiple positions, a valuable trait among NBA GMs. Much like Scott, though, Thompson has not proven to be a consistent perimeter threat. Despite being able to jump out of the gym and seemingly making a highlight reel play at least once a game, he needs to become a more complete offensive player if he is to make the transition to the pros.
The senior did show progress on the offensive end last season, though, averaging 7.9 points, shooting 45 percent from the floor, and leading the team in three-point shooting percentage at 35.5 percent. A more consistent jumper, increased aggression in getting to the rim, and a jump in his disappointing rebounding numbers (2.7 per game in 2013-14) could make Thompson's otherworldly leaping ability too much for an NBA GM to pass up.
What do you think?
The fun part about the preseason is that no one has any idea what will unfold once the season begins. There are rankings and metrics, of course, but until the ball is tipped off, everything is mere speculation. There is a great chance that every single one of the predictions I've made will turn out to be wrong. If I am, I'm sure someone will let me know about it. But for Ohio State and its players, the talent is there for this to be a special season.