Sometimes when i'm having a hard day and the sales just aren't happening, I flick open my Vine app and start looking for something to lift my spirits from "9 to 5 clock watching" to "J.J. Watt against a 1,000 pound tire". Wayyyy too often I wind up watching Ohio State highlights of D'Angelo Russell (which in turn sends me down an hour long rabbit hole, that ultimately gets me to lunch time).
Nevertheless, Russell was the best part of Buckeye hoops last season. And while I doubt you've forgotten how eyebrow raising, heart pumping and sofa surfing some of the plays he made were, those moments of super human ability are now a part of the Los Angeles Kobe Bryant's.
But when you hone in on the teams all encompassing year, the Buckeyes under performed. Even with one of the best point guards I've seen play in the Big Ten and seniors Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson on the defensive end, Thad Matta's crew just couldn't figure it out (but often showed bits of pieces here and there that left you hungry for what could have been) eventually skating to a 24-11 overall record and 11-7 in the Big Ten.
The question remains now, who are the cogs that are going to make Matta's young engine turn heading into the 2015-16 season? Can last years role players step into the lime light? Can the five-player recruiting class make immediate contributions? Can Marc Loving shoot his way into the void left behind by Russell? Can Jae'Sean Tate make me squeal with joy and excitement?
Let's take a look.
The Toledo Threestep- Marc Loving
The 2014-15 season was as intriguing as it was interesting for Loving. He threw on his glowing shoes and was on fire from the start, filling the much needed shooter void in Matta's offense. The sophomore averaged a little over 11-points per game on a minutes output that progressively and consistently reached into the twenties. During that span he shot 53.1% from three, including a 5 for 5 performance against Maryland and a 5 for 8 game against North Carolina.
Go back and read that sentence again. Loving, who shot 25.9% during his freshman campaign jumped up to 53.1% in just one year! That's an unreal uptick.
And then the suspension happened.
After missing the three games for the suspension, Loving seemingly (and shockingly) chose to suspend his game for the remainder of the season. The dude was absolutely lost. No seriously, he could've tried out for Peter Pan Live!. It was that bad. He scored over ten points in only one game, shot 21.7% from three, contributed only two assists on eight turnovers and played, for the lack of a better term, soft.
But, I'm chalking all of that up to a late sophomore slump after a pretty silly mistake. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt as he's had the whole off season to learn how to conduct himself on and off the court and to get his mind right again. He has all of the offensive talent to lead this young Buckeye team. His efficiency sky rocketed last year and if he can just play a little more physically while limiting the turnovers, he's destined for a break out.
The Small Ball Nightmare- Jae'Sean Tate
Outside of incoming freshman JaQuan Lyle, Tate is my favorite Buckeye player going into the season.
It all stems from one play in Ohio State's first round (or second round for you purists out there) win over VCU. The Buckeyes were down 25-13 with a little over five minutes left in the half. The start of that game was UGLY for Matta and his band. After a Rams miss, Russell dribbled down the court and flipped a pass to an streaking/open Tate at the top of the key. The freshman, without any hesitation, knew he had space in front of him and took off. Going straight at VCU center Mo Alie-Cox's chest, Tate tried to finesse a little right handed flip shot towards the rim.
And he missed horribly.
But it's what he did next that made me appreciate the high motor forward. Instead of letting his momentum carry him out of bounds, he gathered himself, stole the offensive board and took two power dribbles towards the middle of the paint for better positioning. After that, it's pure post-game satisfaction. Tate throws up quick pump fake, launching Alie-Cox in the air, setting up a smooth left handed baby hook that was wet before it even left his finger tips... all the while getting crashed down on by the 250 pound big.
It was the emotional spike the Buckeyes desperately lacked to start that contest. It got everyone on the roster into the game. That simple hustle play bred a team wide intensity and focus that ended up being the difference in the scoreboard.
Look, I get it, Russell stole the show during that game (and oh was it glorious to watch). But Tate was the motor to Russell's sports car. And that was the case the entire season. Tate became a fan favorite for his "Rise and Grind" work ethic and ability to finish everything near the hoop.
And little plays like the one above are the ones that Tate makes look easy. Those are the plays he's going to have to make consistently this year, especially with all of the young talent around him. He will be setting the standard at practice and in the game. He's now the upperclassmen that needs to take it to the young'ens to get them prepped and ready to go against the Big Ten.
And yes, he's going to make me squeal.
The Slender Spacer- Keita Bates-Diop
Talk about another key piece in the VCU game (two HUGE threes late in the game), KBD (yes, I'm going ESPN host on ya) comes into his sophomore season as Thad Matta's wild card. He's 6'7" and 190 pounds soaking wet. He's probably not well suited for the four slot against traditional Big Ten lineups, but it'll be fun to see if Matta puts him there anyways as a stretch four (especially against some of the more lumbering/slow monstrosities around the league) with Tate behind him at the five. He's a fantastic shooter, finishing the season at 46.2% from three and 48.1% inside the arch.
All of that on only 23.2% of the teams overall minutes due to the log jam that was the Ohio State wing position last year.
If KBD can come into the season with confidence in his jumper (and maybe a couple extra pounds of muscle, or heck, even some dorm hall cafeteria fat), he's going to see a minutes spike. Shooting was the Achilles heel to the Buckeyes last season, but with Loving and Bates-Diop, the future looks bright. The amount of space both of these 6'7" sophomores could create for guys like Kam Williams, Lyle, Tate and any mixture of the other four-star incoming freshman is going to be integral to the success for the Buckeyes basketball season.