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2018-’19 Ohio State Buckeyes Basketball Season Preview

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An in-depth look at this upcoming season’s Ohio State squad

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 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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I’m on the record stating that I think Ohio State has a higher long-term ceiling than any other school in the Big Ten. Let’s run down the list of advantages:

  • They are the premiere program in the state of Ohio.
  • The state of Ohio is loaded with high school talent.
  • They’ve got football money.
  • They’re willing to invest that football money in the basketball program.
  • They have the biggest arena in the Big Ten.
  • They have passionate basketball fans, but not so much that it puts a microscope on every single little thing a coach says or does. Kentucky chews up and spits out coaches who aren’t in the top 5 nationally. Indiana still maintains its cargo cult of candy-stripe pants. Pity the man who follows Coach K at Duke. At Ohio State, you can come in and win without chasing ghosts. Urban Meyer will catch the real heat from fans.

Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo both had plenty of success during the Thad Matta era, but they never had a run where they were a one or two seed six out of eight years. From 2010 through 2013, the Buckeyes were No. 7, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 7 in the final KenPom rankings. Thad had things cooking in Columbus, and it was only a matter of time before he won a national championship.

Well, we all know what happened. Health issues. Chemistry problems. Players in legal trouble. Ohio State took a step back, and fans of other programs took a big sigh of relief. But those issues have been fixed, and the advantages above all still remain in place. Chris Holtmann showed enough at Butler to let me know he’s a damn good coach, and last year—when many people were picking the Buckeyes to finish tenth or worse in the Big Ten—only cemented that fact. I don’t know if he’s as good as Thad was, but if he’s anywhere close, the Buckeyes will win more Big Ten games over the next ten years than anyone else.

So, let’s take a look at this year’s squad.

1. 2017-’18 Season Performance

  • Record: 25-9 (15-3)
  • KenPom Team Rating: 16
  • Postseason: NCAA Round of 32

Last year’s season will be remembered for the following things:

  • Keita Bates-Diop playing out of his mind
  • Chris Holtmann killing it in his first year
  • A blowout victory over Michigan State in Columbus with the entire nation watching. (It was the Sunday afternoon game on CBS, which for my money is the primest of prime slots.)
  • Losing to Penn State three times.

Yes, Buckeye fans, I’m not going to let you forget about that last one. Seriously, in the next section where I talk about offseason exits, maybe I ought to mention Penn State’s Tony Carr. In Columbus on January 25, Carr scored 28. In State College on February 15, Carr dropped 30. And in Madison Square Garden on March 2 (with yours truly in attendance), he scored 25. That’s 83 points against one team in one year.

Other than that, the Buckeyes dropped two games to Gonzaga, one to Clemson, one to North Carolina, and one to Michigan. Those were all top-15 KenPom teams. They also lost to Butler in overtime in the PK80, in what had to have been a difficult game for Coach Holtmann as he coached against his former players. And Butler ended the year No. 20 in KenPom, and Penn State ended at No. 19 after a blistering run through the NIT. Which means that Chris Holtmann has yet to have a “bad loss” in Columbus.

2. Offseason Exits

The Buckeyes lose the following players from last year’s team:

  • Keita Bates-Diop (Junior, entered NBA draft)
  • Jae-Sean Tate (Senior, Graduated)
  • Kam Williams (Senior, Graduated)
  • Andrew Dakich (5th year Senior, Ascended to a higher plane of existence)

The obvious loss, unless you happen to be a certain ESPN commentator and Indianapolis radio host, is Keita Bates-Diop. KBD was the Big Ten player of the year and was in the top ten in the league in the following categories: usage, shots taken, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive TO rate (i.e. he didn’t turn the ball over), defensive block rate, fouls called per 40 minutes (i.e. he hardly ever fouled).

The highlight of Bates-Diop’s season was the CBS Sunday game against Michigan State, where he scored 32. He was held to single digits only twice, and one of those was a laugher against Rutgers where his minutes were limited.

Jae-Sean Tate will be a big loss, too, particularly at the defensive end. Tate earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors, and though he didn’t make the All-Defensive Team, he certainly had a case. He was top 20 in the league in steals, which is not that crazy for a senior guard at Ohio State, but also blocked shots and offensive rebounding. Tate was 6’4”. There’s not many guys that size who can put up those kinds of numbers.

3. New Additions

The Buckeyes add the following players from last year’s team:

  • Luther Muhammad (Freshman Guard)
  • Duane Washington (Freshman Guard)
  • Jaedon Ledee (Freshman Forward)
  • Justin Ahrens (Freshman Forward)
  • Keyshawn Woods (Graduate Transfer from Wake Forest, Guard)
  • Danny Hummer (Redshirt Junior, Transfer from Air Force, Guard)

I’d like to talk about the two transfers, first because recruiting is a rabbit hole I do my best to avoid getting sucked down into, and secondly because I can pull stats from KenPom. But these are not impact players. Woods at least saw decent minutes at Wake Forest, but his stats—apart from a very good 84.5% from the charity stripe—are nothing to write home about. Meanwhile, Danny Hummer has appeared in less than 40 minutes of action in his career, with the highlight being a triple-overtime loss to UNLV his freshman year, where he played 11 minutes and put up an offensive rating of 38. Oof.

So let’s talk about the freshmen. 247 Sports has the Buckeyes’ four-man 2018 class ranked sixth best in the Big Ten. This is a solid, if unspectacular, haul of players—good for helping a coach build the foundation of a new culture, but not great if you’re looking to replace the production of Keita Bates-Diop and Jae-Sean Tate.

Muhammad is the headliner of the class, a New Jersey point guard, and based on the numbers put up by CJ Jackson last year, it wouldn’t be shocking if Muhammad saw a decent amount of playing time at the point. Still, Buckeye fans hungry a return to the days when Ohio State was rolling out just as many 5-star freshmen as Kansas and Kentucky will have to wait another year for that. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves now.

4. Points of Optimism

Did I not just say Ohio State is going to be the best program in the Big Ten over the next decade? They have all the advantages outlined above, a terrific new coach, and a roster full of guys who seem to like playing with each other.

But will Ohio State finish in the top three of the Big Ten again this season? Er, no. Kaleb Wesson is really good, and it will be fun to see a healthy Kyle Young play to his potential after an up-and-down freshman season, but most of the optimism surrounding the Buckeyes is over the long, not the short, term.

That said, I guarantee the Buckeyes don’t lose to Penn State three times in 2019.

5. Points of Concern

Can Ohio State win without elite talent? It’s difficult to recall a time when they ever have, but that’s mainly because there’s always been plenty of talent on the roster.

And speaking of things missing from the roster, what about size? Ohio State played small last year, with no one taller than 6’9” on the roster, and that will be true again this year. Yes, Kaleb Wesson is a hoss at 270 pounds, and yes basketball in general is getting away from the idea of the traditional center, but of the other top 5 teams in the league last year, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue each have at least two guys on their roster 6’10” or taller, and even Nebraska has a 6’11” freshman.

6. Top Player

Kaleb Wesson seems like a natural choice here. For one thing, he’s poised to take that classic freshman-to-sophomore leap. For another thing, I can remember another Ohio State sophomore who held down the 5-spot in Columbus not because he had elite height but because he had elite girth. Jared Sullinger worked out pretty well for the Buckeyes back in 2012.

Let’s compare freshman Wesson to freshman Sullinger.

  • Offensive rating: Wesson 123.2, Sullinger 120.4
  • Usage: Wesson 24.0%, Sullinger 27.0%
  • True Shooting Pct: Wesson 61.5%, Sullinger 59.1%
  • Offensive Rebound Pct: Wesson 13.8%, Sullinger 14.0%
  • Defensive Rebound Pct: Wesson 14.4%, Sullinger 26.2%
  • Assist Rate: Wesson 10.2, Sullinger 7.4
  • Defensive Block Pct: Wesson 3.6%, Sullinger 2.0%
  • Fouls Drawn Per 40: Wesson 6.1, Sullinger 6.8

I mean, holy cow. Apart from the fact that Sully was a much, much better defensive rebounder, the two players otherwise put up incredibly similar freshman numbers. I’m not saying Wesson is going to be as good as sophomore Jared Sullinger in 2012, but even freshman year Sullinger was a first-team All American.

Now, Sullinger did put up almost twice as many shots as Wesson. But with Tate and Bates-Diop gone, the opportunities will be there for Wesson to get his. Buckeye fans will hope he can contribute a greater volume with the same efficiency.

7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown

  • Nov 7, at Cincinnati
  • Nov 11, Fort Wayne
  • Nov 15, at Creighton
  • Nov 18, South Carolina State
  • Nov. 20, Samford
  • Nov 23, Cleveland State (@St. John Arena)
  • Nov 28, Syracuse
  • Dec 2, Minnesota
  • Dec 5, at Illinois (@United Center)
  • Dec 15, Bucknell
  • Dec 18, Youngstown State
  • Dec 22, UCLA (@United Center)
  • Dec 29, High Point
  • Jan 5, Michigan State
  • Jan 9, at Rutgers
  • Jan 12, at Iowa
  • Jan 18, Maryland
  • Jan 23, Purdue
  • Jan 26, at Nebraska
  • Jan 29, at Michigan
  • Feb 2, Rutgers
  • Feb 7, Penn State
  • Feb 10, at Indiana
  • Feb 14, Illinois
  • Feb 17, at Michigan State
  • Feb 20, Northwestern
  • Feb 23, at Maryland
  • Feb 26, Iowa
  • Mar 2, at Purdue
  • Mar 6, at Northwestern
  • Mar 10, Wisconsin

Two things stand out here. One, the Buckeyes aren’t shying away from tough road games early in the season. Many coaches hate the chance of picking up an early L, and they avoid games like this like the plague. But not Holtmann. Hell, he’s even playing at Cincinnati. That has never happened in the history of Ohio State basketball.

The second thing is that the Buckeyes will be playing one neutral site game and one “road game” at the United Center. Though neither of these games was set by Ohio State (the first is technically an Illinois home game, the latter part of the CBS Sports Classic), you have to think that seeing that arena twice will help prepare them for the Big Ten tournament, which is in the same arena.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Luther Muhammad (Fr) - 55%
  • PG/SG: CJ Jackson (So) - 90%
  • F: Andre Wesson (Jr) - 65%
  • F: Micah Potter (Jr) - 60%
  • PF: Kaleb Wesson (So) - 99%

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

Man, I struggled with this one. There’s a lot of girth in this lineup, but not a lot of shooting. However, there are a few pieces that do look like safe bets to start.

The two key guys are Jackson and Wesson. We generally have an idea on what they will do this season and both figure to be solid bets to start. Potter and Andre Wesson also seem likely given their experience. The main question will be what Muhammad does early. If he can hit the floor running, this lineup could really open up this season.

9. Team Perspective from Thomas Beindit

Perhaps no team was more surprising for the Big Ten last season than Ohio State. Despite incredibly low preseason expectations and a clear lack of talent on the roster, the team went 25-9 and was just a few plays away from going to the Sweet 16. It was a great first year with Chris Holtmann at the helm and could signal big things to come.

However, with Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, and Kam Williams departing, questions abound as to what this year’s team will look like. CJ Jackson and Kaleb Wesson return, but who knows how the rest of the roster will play this season. And that’s especially important because of how much players like Bates-Diop contributed last season. Ohio State isn’t in last year’s NCAA Tournament without players like him and Tate going off.

The good news is that help is on the way. The program is adding the 27th rated recruiting class and a top 100 prospect in Luther Muhammad. Additionally, Keyshawn Woods joins as a graduate transfer from Wake Forest. Returning bench options like Micah Potter and Andre Wesson could also be poised to improve as upperclassmen.

All told, Ohio State is a team that has the potential to compete for an NCAA Tournament appearance this season. The ceiling is probably lower than last year, but with Holtmann in charge, who knows who could bust out for a big season. It will take a surprise or two for the Buckeyes to put up performances like last season.

10. Overall Season Outlook

This is going to be a step back from last year, no doubt about it. In my mind, what this season does is create a floor for the Chris Holtmann era. Going forward, he should have better players on his roster every singe season. Whatever he can accomplish with this bunch, he should be able to duplicate and then some.

So what can he accomplish with this bunch? I’m tempted to say “not much” but I would have said that last year, and look what happened. Of course, last year there was an overlooked gem of a player still on the roster. Maybe there still is in Kaleb Wesson, but I’m bearish on the Buckeyes this season

Big Ten Prediction: 10th Place