Ohio State easily has one of the most unique roster constructions in college basketball, with only one player (Marc Loving) not in his first or last season. As a result, the Buckeyes have four freshmen seeing minutes and being expected to contribute in meaningful ways.
D'Angelo Russell gets the majority of the attention, and with good reason. Russell leads the team in scoring with 18.6 points per game, and adds 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.8 steals, while shifting between both guard spots. His scoring and rebounding numbers have actually improved in Big Ten play, coming in at 20.5 points and 5.8 boards a contest.
"We are a better team when he is on his best game," head coach Thad Matta said this past week. "Not just his scoring game, but the little things in his game as well."
Russell has been so impressive, the consensus is he will likely be a one-and-done. With his draft stock rising, it would be hard to argue with him if he goes that route, though no one would blame fans of the scarlet and grey for wanting him to stick around.
Aside from Russell, the preseason hype for the other members of this year's freshman class was lofty, too. Throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule, Matta got quality minutes from his rookies, but playing time has dwindled a bit in Big Ten play.
Ohio State (14-5, 3-3 in the Big Ten) has played a Jekyll & Hyde routine for much of the past month in conference play, and the inexperience of so many rotation players is certainly part of that. Saturday's 76-67 loss to Iowa had the Buckeyes looking like an NIT team, a departure from the strong performance they put in against Michigan in a 19-point victory on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes swept the season series for the first time during Matta's tenure.
"I've been saying it all year: We've got to find that solid 40 minutes, as opposed to having our heads held underwater," Matta said.
With just a dozen regular season games remaining, Ohio State needs its young players to play beyond their years if it hopes to be a factor in the Big Ten tournament and beyond. Let's take a look at how the freshman class is developing for the Buckeyes.
The top recruit in the state of Ohio in last year's recruiting class, Tate has played much as advertised. Despite being undersized for his style of play, the Pickerington native gives it every ounce of energy he has every second he's on the court, and the team relies on that.
"He's got a knack for really getting guys going, as well as getting under the skin of the other team," Matta said back in December.
That opinion clearly hasn't changed for the Buckeyes' coaching staff, as Tate is playing the most minutes among Ohio State's freshmen besides Russell.
Averaging 16.3 minutes a game since the conference schedule began, the Buckeyes' glue guy is averaging 7.8 points and 4 boards. Tate had arguably his best game of the season in Saturday's loss, as his hustle on both ends of the court led to 11 points, 6 rebounds (5 on the offensive glass), a block, and a steal, helping to spur a comeback that ultimately fell short.
Early in the season, Williams was scorching from the perimeter, averaging double figures off the bench for Matta. A redshirt freshman who is in his second year in the program, it appeared the Baltimore product was ready to be a steady contributor, bringing energy, athleticism, and scoring in a reserve role.
On the season, Williams is averaging 7.5 points a game, but has seen his time on the court decrease drastically during Big Ten play. Averaging just 9.2 minutes per conference game, Williams has seen his scoring drop to 1.7 points on just 22 percent shooting, including a miserable 18 percent from beyond the arc.
In addition to the shooting slump, defense is an obvious culprit for the decrease in playing time, as Matta is notorious for shrinking his rotation during the Big Ten schedule. If Williams wants to see the court more, he'll need to find his shot again and pick things up on the defensive side of the ball.
Much like Williams, Bates-Diop has seen a reduction in minutes the past month. While the guy Buckeye fans call KBD has shown flashes at times, it is clear that his defense and thin frame need to continue developing if he hopes to see consistent playing time. He has also struggled a bit with his perimeter shot.
Matta has professed to have not lost faith in his freshman bench players, saying last week, "We've got to get Kam and Keita [more playing time] because I think both guys have done a really nice job when they've been in there, so those guys definitely have to play more."
Bates-Diop is averaging 4.6 points per game on the year, but is getting just 6 minutes off the bench in the Big Ten. After being on the floor for just one minute against the Wolverines, he notched a DNP-CD for the second time against Iowa. The Normal, Illinois native is netting just 2.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per conference game.
In a conference season-high 15 minutes against Indiana last Saturday, Bates-Diop was just 1-6 from the floor, including 0-3 from deep. Without more consistency, it will be difficult for Matta to increase his minutes.
Pushing Through the Freshman Wall
With a .500 record in the Big Ten and five losses already, it is still unclear if Ohio State is an NCAA tournament team. A ten-loss team could very easily be left on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, so it is imperative that the Buckeyes finish strong.
"We're losing games more than other teams are beating us, I think," senior Shannon Scott said after Saturday's loss. "We're giving them open shots, we're giving them the ball, we're giving them rebounds. We're just not being a tough team. That's all on us. That's not them doing anything. That's all on us."
The final twelve conference games and the Big Ten tourney will decide if the Buckeyes get to go dancing in March, and Matta will need his freshmen to step up to make that happen. Williams and Bates-Diop are both struggling, which may remind some of Loving's rookie campaign a season ago. The duo's scoring ability off the bench is sorely needed. Complementing the phenomenal talent of Russell and the motor of Tate, their ability to pick things up down the stretch will go a long way towards determining where this Ohio State team will be playing two months from now.