Entering the season, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta found himself in unfamiliar territory. The Buckeyes, fresh off an early exit from the NCAA tournament the previous March, were moving into the post-Aaron Craft era in Columbus with seemingly more questions than answers.
During Matta's tenure, Ohio State has consistently been among the top of the heap in the Big Ten, and has seen its national stature and recruiting success improve drastically. After the disappointment of last year's loss to Dayton in the first March Madness game, and with one of the more unusual roster constructions in the country, it was far from clear whether the Buckeyes would be able to put together a bounce back season.
With this year's NCAA tourney now fast approaching, we look back on the season for Matta's squad. For the most part, it is a story of disappointment, but there were great moments as well.
Ohio State navigated its non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record, which on its face would seem to be overwhelmingly positive. But, as has been the case in recent years with many programs across the country, the schedule in the early going was largely deceiving. Of the Buckeyes 11 wins, all came at home and none came against a team that finished the year in the top 100 according to KenPom. Ohio State essentially beat up on cupcakes, and expectations were artificially inflated beyond the scope of what the team was really capable of.
The two losses the Buckeyes suffered during the non-conference slate came in the only two games the team played away from home, and the only two against quality opponents. Matchups with Louisville in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic revealed weaknesses that would plague the Buckeyes once they reached the conference schedule, and gave clues as to how the season would play out.
Ohio State got the conference schedule started with a loss at home to Iowa in a game in which the Hawkeyes simply dominated. Through the first third of the schedule, the Buckeyes were 3-3, and searching for an identity. Defense, the usual hallmark of a Matta-coached team, was not meeting the standard that Ohio State had become accustomed to, and the offensive struggles that had derailed the team the past two seasons resurfaced.
A string of hot play during the middle third of the conference slate saw the Buckeyes win five of six, prompting optimism that the squad had turned the corner and was on its way to contending for a top-4 finish entering the Big Ten tournament. Highlighting this run was a 24-point thumping of 16th-ranked Maryland and freshman D'Angelo Russell becoming just the third player in program history to put up a triple-double in a 19-point blowout of bottom dwelling Rutgers.
The final third of the regular season saw Ohio State play .500 ball, finishing with with an 11-7 overall record in Big Ten play, and the sixth seed in the conference tournament. Once again, the Buckeyes struggled away from home, losing back-to-back games on the road against Michigan State and Michigan, and against quality competition, dropping the final game of the regular season to Wisconsin in embarrassing fashion on Senior Day at Value City Arena.
The sixth seed meant a first round bye for Ohio State. The Buckeyes took care of Minnesota in their first tourney game, fighting back from an early deficit and withstanding a late rally by the Gophers. That win moved Matta in front of the legendary Fred Taylor as the most successful head coach in school history, but it may well be the final victory the team will earn this season. Ohio State lost its quarterfinal matchup against Michigan State in what looked like something of a replay of the loss to the Badgers. The Buckeyes were out-hustled, outmuscled, and outplayed by the Spartans at the United Center, and did themselves no favors entering Selection Sunday.
The composition of Ohio State's roster was unique as the Buckeyes featured only one player who was not in either his first or last year of college basketball. The team was comprised of five seniors, one sophomore, and four freshmen, so questions of how the components would blend together were rampant. Would the senior class finally fulfill the potential that had made them a top-10 recruiting class four years ago? Would this year's newcomers acclimate themselves to the college game and make an impact? How would Matta's notoriously short rotation play out with such a strange roster?
As we saw, the seniors largely disappointed and a couple of freshmen played beyond their years. Here's how the key cogs for Ohio State performed.
Russell arrived at Ohio State as a highly-lauded 5-star recruit and finished the season as one of the most prolific, highly-decorated freshmen to ever put on the scarlet and gray. Russell averaged 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game on his way to being named a first team All-American by numerous outlets, as well as Big Ten Freshman of the Year and first team All-Conference.
While the former Montverde Academy standout had his share of freshman moments, Russell so far exceeded expectations that this will likely be the only season he will spend in college. Most draft projections show the talented lefty going off the board within the first few picks in the NBA lottery this summer. Russell was by far the brightest spot for Ohio State this season. One shudders at the thought of how the Buckeyes would have fared this season without him.
After three years of playing behind Craft, the Buckeyes were finally Scott's team to run this season. The former McDonald's High School All-American, who had been named to the All-Defensive team in the Big Ten the past two years, would finally have a shot at showing his offensive game.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, though, Scott never found the type of consistency needed to routinely impact games on the offensive end. The Alpharetta, Georgia native did lead the Big Ten with 5.9 assists per game and was named honorable mention All-Conference, but averaged just 8.5 points and shot 29 percent from three-point range. By the end of the season, Scott had deferred much of the ball handling and playmaking duties to Russell.
It was a story of two seasons for Loving, a former Mr. Basketball in the state of Ohio. For the first 22 games, the Toledo, Ohio native was the second offensive option Ohio State needed next to Russell. In his second year in Columbus, Loving was averaging just under 12 points a night and was among the nation's leaders in three-point shooting percentage.
A suspension of three games in early February for an undisclosed disciplinary reason was the turning point in Loving's season, and that was not a good thing. The sophomore saw his minutes decline and never seemed to recover his shooting stroke, averaging a meager 4.3 points in the eight remaining games the Buckeyes played.
For all of his highlight reel dunks, Thompson's time in Columbus had largely been a story of failure to develop an all-around game. While his athleticism means the Chicago product is generally among the most explosive players on the court in any given game, he struggled with his shooting and rebounding through his first three seasons. As a senior, Thompson mostly failed to make the kind of jump in his game that Ohio State had hoped for, still having issues from the perimeter.
Thompson averaged 10.2 points and 3.8 boards a game, and his defense was stellar for much of the year. But, he shot just 25.6 percent from long range, a steep decline from his junior campaign, and 67.4 percent from the free throw line. Without consistency, Thompson could not establish himself as a legitimate perimeter threat or set himself up with driving lines on a regular basis for his Sportscenter Top 10 throwdowns.
The best story for Ohio State this season aside from the emergence of Russell, and perhaps the biggest reason for optimism for the program's future, was the play of Tate in his freshman campaign. After proving himself to be the enthusiastic engine of the team early on, the Pickerington, Ohio native forced his way into the starting lineup midway through the year, and showed why he was the top recruit in Ohio in his class.
An undersized power forward at just 6-foot-4, Tate used pure hustle to become a force in the paint, averaging 8.8 points and 4.9 rebounds a game. Though his perimeter game needs a lot of work (he shot 15.6 percent from three-point range on 19 attempts), Tate showed the ability to run the floor, grab offensive boards in traffic against taller opponents, and tenacity on defense. As he moves forward in his career for the Buckeyes, Tate should become a mainstay in the starting lineup and act as the "glue guy" and leader that every successful team needs.
Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and Anthony Lee
The three-headed big man monster for Ohio State proved to be a major liability for Matta. None of the three of Williams, McDonald, and Lee managed to provide much in the way of offense on the block, and tended to get outmuscled by the opposition on defense and on the glass. All three will be moving on from the program, and the Buckeyes may be better off for it.
Williams, himself a McDonald's All-American when he arrived, showed flashes throughout his career of the potential to be a serviceable big man on both ends, but never did so consistently. At 6-foot-11, the former Detroit Country Day star seemed to play much smaller, averaging 6.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks a game.
McDonald, never the most skilled big man, played with great effort, but consistently found himself in foul trouble. In a little under 12 minutes a game, the Battle Creek, Michigan native averaged 2.8 points and 2.7 boards a night.
This wasn't the kind of season Lee envisioned when he transferred to Ohio State from Temple. After leading the AAC in rebounding for the Owls a season ago, Lee began the year trying to crack the rotation and finished it with a nagging groin injury that kept him off the court the final month of the season. In 21 games, the Maryland native averaged 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 11 minutes per game.
Ohio State finished up with a 23-10 record, including 11-7 during the Big Ten's regular season, which landed them a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes will matchup with VCU in Portland. A win against the Rams would likely lead to a second round game against second-seeded Arizona.
Matta would like to see his squad avoid the early exit it suffered last March. After a season that was largely underwhelming, that may be a tall order. But, as Russell makes his first, and likely only, foray into the tourney, Ohio State cannot be counted out. The Buckeyes will go as far as its freshman phenom can carry them.