When the buzzer sounded on Ohio State's season last March in Buffalo against the Dayton Flyers, it capped a disappointing campaign that saw the Buckeyes fall from being the third-ranked team in the country in January to its earliest NCAA tournament exit since 2009. With the departure of the team's three leading scorers from a season ago and a host of new faces in scarlet and grey, Thad Matta's squad is perhaps entering this year with more questions than answers. But make no mistake, there is an abundance of talent, athleticism, and versatility on the roster. If the veterans step up and the stage isn't too big for the rookies, the program will be able to look back on last season as merely an aberration.
Five reasons to be optimistic about Ohio State in 2014-15
#1 - Great Scott
The face of Ohio State basketball the past few seasons has undoubtedly been Aaron Craft. The rosy-cheeked guard with relentless defense and an ugly shot was one of the most polarizing players in the country. The attention Craft received allowed fellow point guard Shannon Scott to fly a bit more under the radar than most former McDonald's All-Americans. The Alpharetta, Georgia native has quietly developed into a high-quality defender and distributor of the basketball, earning Big Ten All-Defensive team the past two seasons, and finishing just behind Craft for the conference lead in steals. Scott also finished last season in the top ten in the conference for assist-to-turnover ratio, but still has not proven he can consistently knock down outside shots.
Now a senior, the time is now for Scott to make the Buckeyes his team. He will be spearheading the perimeter defense and running the show on offense, and must improve his consistency if Ohio State is to contend in the Big Ten and beyond. The early word from Columbus is that Scott is doing just that.
#2 - Agent Zero
Among the deficiencies that Ohio State displayed last season, the most glaring was the team's struggles to shoot the ball. Joining Scott in the starting backcourt is likely to be heralded incoming freshman D'Angelo Russell, a McDonald's All-American himself, who some regard as the best pure scorer in his recruiting class nationally. Russell will be expected to provide something Ohio State has lacked in the backcourt since Jon Diebler graduated: a knock-down shooter. The Florida product is also an elite athlete, adept ball-handler, and skilled passer. As long as his defense passes muster with the coaching staff, Russell should see plenty of playing time, and may assume the mantle of go-to scorer for the Buckeyes.
#3 - S.O.S.
Ohio State started off last season 15-0, reaching the No. 3 ranking in the national polls, before the wheels came off and the team lost eight conference games for the first time in five years. The struggles the team displayed in the Big Ten and, ultimately, in the loss to Dayton, were largely overlooked during a non-conference schedule that boasted opponents like North Florida, Bryant, and Louisiana-Monroe. 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.
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 increased competition and scrutiny early on should provide a much more solid indication of where the team stands before conference play begins.
#4 - Welcome to Columbus
In addition to Russell, a host of new faces will be suiting up for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes are welcoming BT Powerhouse's top-ranked recruiting class to the Big Ten this fall, and also landed one of the top transfer players in the country. There is a lot of new blood that will be trying to fill the void created by the departures of Craft, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and LaQuinton Ross, the team's three top scorers last year. The good news is that these new Buckeyes are versatile, athletic, and fill holes in the roster that proved too much to overcome in the second half of last season.
Former Temple power forward Anthony Lee was one of a record-breaking number of players to transfer to new programs in the off-season, and will provide Matta with a stretch four that can play inside and out on offense and toughness on the glass. Lee will be expected to help clear space in the lane for Scott, Russell, and Sam Thompson to drive and slash, as well as give center Amir Williams more room to operate. A season ago for the Owls, Lee averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Also vying for playing time will be a pair of freshman wings in Keita Bates-Diop and Jae-Sean Tate. Bates-Diop excels at slashing to the basket and spotting up for corner threes, and has also showed the abliity to wreak havoc on the glass with his length. Tate, who had shoulder surgery in February to repair a torn labrum, is on schedule to be 100 percent when practice officially begins in October. The 6'4" central Ohio native has all the makings of the quintessential "glue guy," giving the much sought-after 110 percent every minute he is on the floor.
The forgotten man in all of the hype surrounding the incoming freshmen is Kam Williams. A redshirt freshman after sitting out last season, Williams should also provide some perimeter scoring punch in the backcourt.
#5 - The B1G Picture
Last season's Big Ten resembled conference cannibalism, as teams continuously beat each other up. Only regular season champion Michigan escaped conference play with fewer than six losses. 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.
It's a new season, and last year proved any team in the conference can beat any other on any given night, but playing fewer games against the Big Ten's projected frontrunners should help the Buckeyes finish the season with a more favorable record and a better seed when the conference tournament gets underway in Chicago's United Center in early March.
As a new season approaches in Columbus, Ohio State is looking to put last year's disappointments firmly in the rearview. With a new-look team that will be blending veteran leadership with an infusion of youth, this team will only vaguely resemble the one that dropped its first game of the NCAA tournament last March. Early tests against national powerhouses should toughen the Buckeyes, and prepare them for a Big Ten schedule that, on paper at least, seems favorable. Matta has proven over and over during his tenure that he is building a program that reloads rather than rebuilds, and 2014-15 should serve as an excellent barometer of his progress.