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2017-’18 Ohio State Buckeyes Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Ohio State Buckeyes and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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In cinema, there are few sports movies more beloved than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series. The sextet of films follow a Philadelphia based boxer who is suddenly thrust into the height of heavyweight boxing. Despite a plethora of obstacles, he finds a way to rise above them and defeat the unbeatable Apollo Creed to win the heavyweight belt.

Perhaps the most outrageous film in the series is Rocky III, which showcases Rocky following his rise up the mountaintop. He finds himself faced with the challenges of rediscovering his passion, maintaining his legacy, and overcoming a new fighter named Clubber Lang, who is depicted by Mr. T in the film.

Yes, as mentioned above, this is the most outrageous of the series.

Specifically, Rocky is tasked with accepting that he’s not the same fighter he was one when he first won the title. To address this regression, Rocky begins training with Creed (of all people) after the death of his trainer in order to learn a new style of fighting and improve his speed and stamina. Rocky, of course, eventually rediscovers his edge, defeats Lang, and reestablishes himself as champion.

Heading into this season, Ohio State finds itself in a similar position. Despite an enormous amount of success under former head coach Thad Matta, Ohio State had lost its edge. The Buckeyes had fallen from the nation’s elite both on the court and on the recruiting trail. In fact, Ohio State lowered its overall win total in each of Matta’s final six seasons with the program, dropping from 34 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010-’11 to 17 wins and no postseason appearance last season.

But, for as bad as the struggles were on the court, Ohio State’s recruiting struggles were the last straw for Athletic Director Gene Smith. During the final years of his tenure, Matta struggled to lock down the state and maximize recruiting opportunities. His 2015 recruiting class (once ranked fifth nationally) had been wiped clean from the roster and his final full class in 2016 was rated just 42nd nationally.

What had worked previously for the Buckeyes was no longer working. Something needed to change. So, like Rocky, Ohio State ended up with someone new calling the shots. Ohio State decided to call it quits with Matta and moved on to Chris Holtmann, who joins the program after three NCAA Tournament appearances at Butler.

The question will now be whether Holtmann lead a revival like Rocky III, or if the Buckeyes will continue to underwhelm as in years past. It should be an interesting question. Let’s take a look at how it might work in year one.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Ohio State Buckeyes, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Buckeyes, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and BTPowerhouse Contributor Jon Richardson breaking down Ohio State's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 17-15 (7-11)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #73
  • RPI Rating: #90
  • Postseason Appearance: None

There weren’t exactly high expectations heading into last season for Ohio State. With four freshmen departing in the offseason and underwhelming returners, there wasn’t a massive amount of hope. In last year’s preview, I picked the Buckeyes to finish eighth in the Big Ten, figuing the team would be decent with a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, my predictions were overly optimistic.

Ohio State ended up finishing at just 17-15 overall and tied for 10th in the Big Ten standings. The Buckeyes were never in serious contention for the NCAA Tournament and ended up failing to make even the NIT. That’s quite a disappointment for a program that made four straight Sweet 16s between 2010 and 2013 and seven straight NCAA Tournaments between 2010 and 2015.

What’s particularly interesting about last season is that Ohio State had plenty of bright moments. The Buckeyes started 6-0 with a win over Providence and nearly beat Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. In fact, Ohio State had moved all the way up to 18th on KenPom following its loss to the Cavaliers. Even if that was a flawed early ranking, it indicates what Ohio State was able to do early in the season.

And even though Ohio State fell at home in a crushing loss to Florida Atlantic in early December, it recovered quickly with a win over UConn in the following game. The Buckeyes actually ended non-conference play in pretty good position with a 10-3 overall record, four wins against top 150 RPI teams, and two of its three losses against top 20 teams. Ohio State still needed to do work in Big Ten play, but that was certainly enough to keep it relevant.

Unfortunately, that’s when things went off the rails..

Despite that 10-3 start, Ohio State lost the next four games and seven of its next 10. That left the Buckeyes at 10-7 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten. However, more importantly, it left Ohio State with no margin for error.

Of course, as fans would find out, Ohio State wouldn’t get the job done. The team did have some nice wins against teams like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin toward the end of the season, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the early missteps.

But the lowest moment of the season came in the final game, when Ohio State dropped its Big Ten tournament opener to Rutgers. While the Scarlet Knights were an improved team, it was still an absolutely brutal loss. To understand why, just consider that Rutgers had recorded four wins in its previous 54 league games against Big Ten opponents. Dropping that game was the final gut punch of a frustrating season.

As stated, there were bright spots for Ohio State last season. Unfortunately, they weren’t enough to overcome what was (at best) a lackluster year filled with disappointment. The team will hope a new coach can turn the page on those struggles heading into this season.

Individual statistical leaders were Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, Jae’Sean Tate, and Trevor Thompson. Loving led the team in minutes. Lyle led the team in assists. Tate led the team in points, steals, and usage among contributors. Thompson led the team in rebounds, blocks, and win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Along with trying to take a step forward after an underwhelming season, Ohio State will also face the challenge of trying to replace some key pieces from last season. The Buckeyes have to replace six players from last season’s roster, including two starters and another that saw major minutes. These players are David Bell, Derek Funderburk, Jimmy Jent, Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, and Trevor Thompson.

The most significant departures will come from Loving and Thompson. The two were starters last season and pivotal to the team’s play. In fact, Loving led the team in minutes and Thompson led the team in rebounds. All told, Loving averaged 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds a game and Thompson averaged 10.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Loving left after graduating and Thompson left for the professional leagues.

Additionally, the loss of Lyle is a significant one as well. While his minutes declined late in the season, Lyle still played 70.7 percent of the team’s minutes, including 68.6 percent during Big Ten play. He ended up averaging 11.4 points and 4.6 assists per game and led the roster in total assists. Many regarded Lyle as the Buckeye with the most offensive potential on the roster, making his departure a frustrating one.

It’s hard to describe those three departures as anything other than substantial. Even if you are skeptical about their contributions, that’s two players who averaged roughly 30 minutes a game and another that dominated the minutes upfront. Those three also include Ohio State’s leaders in minutes, rebounds, and assists and three of the team’s top four in scoring. None of these three will be easy to replace for the Buckeyes.

The good news is that the final three departures aren’t all that overwhelming. Bell averaged 6.7 minutes a game in 15 contests and Funderburk and Jent really didn’t play at all. However, two of these departures come in a frontcourt that’s looking dangerously thin. These departures will leave the Buckeyes without a legitimate frontcourt option that has more than a season of experience.

None of these departures are going to derail Ohio State’s program or season. Well, by themselves. Unfortunately, Ohio State is going to have to overcome them all in one season. That’s going to put a substnatial amount of pressure on the team’s returners and newcomers.

3. New Additions

This season, the Buckeyes will be adding three new recruits, a transfer, and three walk-ons. The recruits are Musa Jallow, Kaleb Wesson, and Kyle Young. Jallow and Young are listed as small forwards and Wesson is listed as a center. Wesson and Young are four-star prospects and Jallow is a three-star per 247Sports. The transfer is Andrew Dakich, who comes from Michigan. The walk-ons are Connor Fulton, Danny Hummer, and Matt Lehmann.

The recruits getting the most attention are Wesson and Young. Both are in-state prospects and will be asked to contribute early for the Buckeyes. Specifically, Wesson will need to step up early in what figures to be an extremely thin frontcourt. The good news is that Wesson is listed at 6-foot-9 and 290 pounds and has decent size.

Young is a talented player in his own right, originally committing to Holtmann when he was at Butler. He is listed at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds and is a smooth player with a nice balance of size and scoring ability. There’s little debating that he has the skillset to play early and earn a starting role this season. The last recruit is Jallow, who figures to play limited minutes as a freshman off the bench.

The lone transfer is Andrew Dakich, who arrives in Columbus after playing four seasons in Ann Arbor. There’s little arguing that this is one of the most bizarre transfers anywhere in college basketball this season. Nonetheless, Dakich figures to get minutes off the bench behind CJ Jackson. He averaged 4.1 minutes per game in 40 games during his time with the Wolverines.

Finally, the two walk-on additions are Fulton, Hummer, and Lehmann. The most interesting of these three is Fulton, who was committed to Butler before Holtmann moved to Ohio State. Additionally, Lehmann joins the program after playing at Bishop Watterson and growing up in the Columbus area. Hummer is actually a transfer from Air Force and will sit out this season due to NCAA rules.

Ohio State is set to add a deep group heading into next season. There are multiple players that could earn starting roles early on and more that could contribute off the bench. Whether that’s enough to get Ohio State back on track remains to be seen, but this group certainly should assist in getting things back on track for the Buckeyes.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s little debating that this projects as a rebuilding season for Holtmann and Ohio State. With so many offseason departures and so much youth, it’s going to take some time for the Buckeyes to get things rolling again. Nonetheless, there are some things for fans to be optimistic about heading into this season.

Although I put this language in each of my previews for teams with new coaches, we need to start this section with the obvious. This is an entirely new coaching staff with a roster that includes a lot of new faces. This might be simplistic, but sometimes a fresh perspective and a new coaching staff can shake up things so much that the same pieces end up producing more than they did before.

Holtmann had an impressive track record with Butler and will be looking to bring that success to Columbus. During his time with the Bulldogs, the program went 70–31 (.693) overall and made three straight NCAA Tournaments. The team also won at least 22 games and 10 league games in all three of his seasons. Holtmann achieved that success with quality midwestern recruiting and player development. Both of these are things Ohio State has struggled with recently.

Bringing in a new coach won’t guarantee success. This much we all know. However, the potential for improvement is certainly there and that should get fans excited. Even if it doesn’t happen this season, fans should be optimistic about the trend that could begin in 2017-’18 for the Buckeyes.

And on the court, Ohio State’s wing group looks pretty solid heading into this season. The team returns Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams and will get Keita Bates-Diop back from injury as well. All three of those players have at least three seasons under their belt and should project to start early on this season. Maybe that’s not the best group in the Big Ten, but it’s a solid group for the Buckeyes.

The wing group should also boast improved depth this season with Andre Wesson returning after his freshman season and the new additions of Musa Jallow and Kyle Young. While Wesson and Jallow might not have the ceiling of players that Ohio State would hope to see, that’s still an improvement in the team’s depth. And Young could very well be good enough to push for a starting role. Having a legitimate sixth man would be a huge boost.

It’s also worth mentioning that Ohio State enters this season with a fair share of youth that could develop over the course of the season. Young figures to compete for starting minutes and Kaleb Wesson should be in position to secure a starting role upfront as well. And the Buckeyes also return young players like Potter and Andre Wesson. Perhaps this can be a team that improves and gets on a run late in the season.

5. Points of Concern

Unfortunately, despite the head coaching shakeup and an intriguing wing group, Ohio State still enters this season with plenty of red flags. As mentioned, the Buckeyes are in the middle of a rebuilding process and there’s little debating that some of those issues will show up for this year’s squad.

From a general perspective, concern for Ohio State’s upcoming season have to begin with last season and the team’s subsequent offseason. The Buckeyes went 17-15 overall and the team is now faced with the challenge of replacing two starters and plenty of surrounding depth. Even if Holtmann can provide new energy and develop the roster, it’s hard to see him erasing those kind of issues overnight.

These concerns are made even more poignant by Ohio State’s anticipated youth. Even if the Buckeyes expect to have four starters with junior eligibility or above, the depth chart is incredibly young. The starting center and primary backups are all expected to be sophomores or younger. The only exception might be Dakich, who’s a former walk-on transferring to Columbus, so that’s not exactly confidence building either.

More simply, what this means is that Holtmann is inheriting a thin roster where the primary pieces return from a team that wasn’t all that great last season. This is akin to getting a car with a mediocre engine and trying to turn it into something special by fixing up the tailpipes and cooling system. And maybe that’s a harsh take, but it gets the point across. Even if Holtmann can find ways to get the most out of those other areas, the ceiling is capped. The primary pieces are the same and that’s something Holtmann will have to deal with, for better or worse.

But, even moving past the general concerns, Ohio State is also going to have to deal with significant issues at the point guard position and in the frontcourt.

To start, there are no easy solutions at point guard. While Jackson returns, the depth options are, uh, not great. Dakich is a former walk-on and the other option is another walk-on in Joey Lane. Anybody else would be playing out of position. Jackson was pretty good at staying on the floor and avoiding foul trouble last season, but he can’t play 40 minutes a game. The goal has to be to keep Dakich and/or Lane around 5 to 10 minutes a game. Anything more will be trouble. And considering how difficult that will be this season, expect this issue to bite the Buckeyes at least a few times.

The frontcourt also has significant depth concerns. The addition of Kaleb Wesson should help out tremendously at center, but Ohio State is still looking at two legitimate centers and one legitimate power forward on its roster. And all are underclassmen. Even if players like Bates-Diop, Tate, and Andre Wesson can slide to the four, Ohio State’s frontcourt is still thin and could have trouble against bigger teams like Michigan State and Purdue.

To put this into perspective, just take a look at the center position. Those minutes will be dominated by Potter and Kaleb Wesson. My guess is that Holtmann looks to split these minutes almost evenly. But that’s going to be incredibly challenging, considering that Wesson is a freshman and Potter committed 6.5 fouls per 40 last season. It’s not hard to imagine one and/or both getting into serious foul trouble. If so, it could force Ohio State into playing a 6-foot-8 player or shorter at center. That’s not good.

And this scenario doesn’t even include the potential for injuries. God willing, nobody gets hurt, but Potter himself was injured last season. Ohio State would be incredibly fortunate if these two and/or the rest of the frontcourt avoid getting dinged up for the season. While it’s unfair to anticipate injuries, this is something that needs to be noted for Ohio State’s roster. This also holds true at point guard. Should Jackson go down for any stretch of time, the Buckeyes could be in major trouble.

Holtmann and his staff certainly have enough to overcome many of these concerns this season, but there are plenty of substantial issues that could derail the Buckeyes. Fans will have to hope that some of the young players can contribute and that the team avoids any significant issues given the roster’s depth concerns.

6. Top Player

It’s been quite some time since the Buckeyes had a legitimate star player. Since D’Angelo Russell left the roster for the NBA, Ohio State has relied on a group of solid-to-good players, but no first team All-Big Ten caliber players.

This was especially true heading into last season. Here’s what I wrote then:

“With most of Ohio State’s key players returning to Columbus, it’s hard to expect things to be too different this year. Keita Bates-Diop, Marc Loving, Tate, and Kam Williams all figure to be in the discussion for the team’s best player early on the year and how they develop will determine who’s the frontrunner for this role heading into this season.

The one wildcard in this situation is JaQuan Lyle. He had a solid freshman performance last season, but was relatively inefficient offensively (94.7 offensive rating), struggled with turnovers (23.0 turnover rate), and had serious problems (25.2 percent) from three-point range. That might not sound encouraging, but he was a great passer and could get to the line. If he can take even a moderate step forward in each category, he could have a great year.”

There’s little debating that those predictions came out to be pretty accurate. The only thing that surprised was the emergence of Thompson. And with Bates-Diop, Tate, and Williams returning, expect similar things this season. Those three will be relatively close to one another as the team’s best player.

The potential wildcards here will be Young and Kaleb Wesson. Both arrive on campus with their fair share of hype and will be looking to make an early impact. It’s unlikely either can be the team’s “best” player so early in their careers, but it’s possible. The most likely scenario is that these two are a step back from the three above.

7. 2016-’17 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/5 - Wooster (Ex.)
  • 11/10 - Robert Morris
  • 11/12 - Radford
  • 11/16 - Texas Southern
  • 11/19 - Northeastern
  • 11/24 - vs. Gonzaga (Portland, Or.)
  • 11/25 - Florida/Stanford (Portland, Or.)
  • 11/26 - TBA (Portland, Or.)
  • 11/29 - Clemson
  • 12/2 - at Wisconsin
  • 12/4 - Michigan
  • 12/9 - William & Mary
  • 12/16 - Appalachian State
  • 12/19 - The Citadel
  • 12/23 - vs. North Carolina (New Orleans, La.)
  • 12/30 - Miami (OH)
  • 1/4 - at Iowa
  • 1/7 - Michigan State
  • 1/11 - Maryland
  • 1/14 - at Rutgers
  • 1/17 - at Northwestern
  • 1/20 - Minnesota (New York City, Ny.)
  • 1/22 - Nebraska
  • 1/25 - Penn State
  • 1/30 - Indiana
  • 2/4 - Illinois
  • 2/7 - at Purdue
  • 2/10 - Iowa
  • 2/15 - at Penn State
  • 2/18 - at Michigan
  • 2/20 - Rutgers
  • 2/23 - at Indiana

Ohio State has set itself up for one of the nation’s more challenging schedules. The Buckeyes are going to have more than a fair share of opportunities to prove the team has taken a step forward since last season. The question will be whether the schedule will be too challenging for a team in a rebuilding phase.

The non-conference slate is incredibly unbalanced. The marquee games are against elite opponents and the bottom of the schedule is filled with the bottom of the barrel. This means that Ohio State could ride its schedule to one of the nation’s best non-conference performances, or could easily exit non-conference play without a major win.

To start, Ohio State’s games against Gonzaga and North Carolina will be immensely challenging. After all, those teams played for the national championship last season. Additionally, games against either Florida and Stanford, another in Portland for the Phil Knight Invitational, and against Clemson look challenging as well.

The good news is that the bottom of the non-conference slate is more than manageable. No other teams ranked in the top 145 on KenPom’s preseason rankings and five rank outside the top 200. The floor, at least, looks decent.

Big Ten play also looks relatively manageable. The Buckeyes will certainly have more than a few challenges, but the team only players Maryland and Michigan State at home and Minnesota on a neutral court. Many have those three as the top teams in the league, so avoiding all three on the road is good news.

Ohio State was also fortunate enough to land double-plays against Indiana, Penn State, and Rutgers and will get Illinois and Nebraska at home. That’s eight games that will be more than winnable for the Buckeyes. A great draw for the team. Even if the team does blow a game or two, plenty of wins are there for the taking.

There’s little debating that Ohio State will face an uphill battle this season thanks to an immensely challenging the schedule. The good news is that Ohio State should be able to manage if the team can take care of the lower-tier Big Ten teams. It should be an interesting ride for the Buckeyes.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: CJ Jackson (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Kam Williams (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Keita Bates-Diop (Rs. Jr.) - 80%
  • PF: Jae’Sean Tate (Sr.) - 95%
  • C: Micah Potter (So.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Ohio State doesn’t figure to be a deep team heading into this season and the starting lineup reflects that reality. Three of the team’s starters should be absolute locks and another is highly probable as well. The only position that should have much drama early on is at center. Unfortunately, some of the certainty in this lineup has more to do with a lack of options than an elite starting lineup.

In the backcourt, expect things to start with CJ Jackson. The team’s issues at point guard have been discussed at length in this preview already, but they bear mentioning yet again here. Ohio State’s point guard options outside of Jackson are Andrew Dakich, Joey Lane, and others who would be playing out of position. That’s certainly not a group that will led much confidence. Either way, Jackson had an alright 2016-’17 season and will look to take another step forward in his second full season with the program. He should dominate the minutes here.

Alongside Jackson should be Williams, who returns to the program after foregoing the NBA Draft. Williams is trying to become “not just a shooter” and improve his NBA stock. The big thing to watch with him will be whether he can improve his consistency. In the final 10 games last season, Williams had six games with an offensive rating above 110 and four others below 80. That will need improvement.

Behind Williams will be true freshman Musa Jallow and walk-on options in Connor Fulton and Matt Lehmann. None of these three players look all that ready to contribute this season. The good news is that Williams will likely play 30 minutes a game and players like Tate could play reserve minutes here, if necessary.

On the wing, Bates-Diop and Tate figure to lock down the starting roles. This is easily the team’s deepest and most talented position group. Bates-Diop could very well get into the All-Big Ten discussion and Tate has been the team’s most reliable option during his career. The only potential concern between these two will be injuries, as both have previously been limited with such issues in the past.

Behind those two will be a young and talented duo in Andre Wesson and Kyle Young. Both are more than capable of seeing more than 15 minutes a game this season. And Young might have the most long-term potential of anyone on the roster. He was heavily recruited in the midwest and should provide an early impact for the Buckeyes.

Upfront, however, is where the drama will occur. Potter and Kaleb Wesson figure to battle for the starting role over the course of the season and will both play significant minutes. Ohio State has no other realistic options here. If the Buckeyes are going to be a competitive team, these team need to produce. My guess is that Potter will lead these two early on and Kaleb Wesson will pass him over the course of the season.

Despite an underwhelming 2016-’17 season and some significant offseason departures, Ohio State could actually have a decent lineup heading into this season. The only issue will be what lies behind those players. The depth is thin and any significant injury could derail this year’s lineup.

9. Team Perspective From Matt Brown of Land Grant Holy Land

“Ohio State seems to be among the bottom four teams in the conference from most projections, and that sounds about right. The Buckeyes do have talent at the top end, from Jae'Sean Tate to Keita Bates-Diop.

But there's massive depth concerns, especially at guard, and double especially at point guard. If the youngsters, like star recruit big man Kaleb Wesson, grow up quickly, this team could still back into the NCAA Tournament, but if anything goes wrong, this is an NIT team, if that. But with a new coach and with a huge roster turnover, that's okay. Ohio State just needs to be interesting. They don't need to be good yet. “

10. Overall Season Outlook

Rebuilding isn’t fun. Neither is realizing that you’ve lost a step from your glory days. While Ohio State had an impressive run with Matta at the helm, the time had come. The Buckeyes had lost the edge that had gotten them to the heights of college basketball. It was time for a reboot and that’s what the program got this offseason.

Unfortunately, change doesn’t happen overnight. Holtmann may, ultimately, lead Ohio State to success down the road, but it’s unlikely that it’s this year. With his late hiring and an underwhelming returning roster, it’s hard to see the Buckeyes doing major damage in the Big Ten or the postseason. Even if Holtmann is recruiting well, fans won’t feel the impacts of that for quite some time.

The good news is that with Bates-Diop, Tate, and Williams all returning, Ohio State should avoid the basement of college basketball. The Buckeyes will have enough to at least pull off an upset or two and take care of the majority of the team’s non-conference foes. Newcomers like Young and Wesson should also help.

But the severe lack of depth along with the massive concerns at the point guard position overwhelm any analysis of this team. Jackson might not even be a top 10 point guard in the Big Ten and he’s going to be playing 30 minutes a game for the Buckeyes. There’s no way anyone can spin that as a positive.

Additionally, the frontcourt is going to rely almost exclusively on two underclassmen, including a sophomore who has already shown he some fouling and injury concerns. There’s enough here to have a solid position, on paper, but it’s not hard to see this position being derailed as well. A team cannot afford two massive holes in the lineup.

Fans should be optimistic about Holtmann and what he can bring to Ohio State’s program. Unfortunately, he has some major challenges to overcome in his first season. As such, expect an underwhelming performance mixed with a few bright spots to keep the program’s momentum building.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place