While some Ohio State athletics fans might be hard pressed to focus on anything but football for another month, others might be setting their sights on the hardwood Friday night.
The No. 20 OSU men’s basketball team is scheduled to open its 2014-15 season at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center against the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Coach Thad Matta’s roster is revamped for the season, as the Buckeyes get ready to play without Aaron Craft or Lenzelle Smith Jr. for the first time in well over 100 games.
With young faces occupying new places in the lineup, I — as The Lantern’s sports editor — picked five key questions that need answers as the season progresses.
1. Which freshmen will shine early?
The OSU roster features four true freshmen and one redshirt-freshman, just one sophomore who is eligible to play this season and no juniors.
In summary — apart from four fourth-year seniors and a redshirt-senior — the Buckeyes will be relying on young talent. And those freshmen are certainly talented.
Of the true freshmen, three played in Sunday’s 77-37 exhibition win against Walsh, while the fourth — center David Bell — is set to redshirt, Matta said after the game. Out of the three who took the court, guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Jae’Sean Tate stood out by far.
Russell led all players with 17 points and tied for team highs with six assists and eight rebounds. Tate got into double digits with 10 points of his own and added on eight rebounds while shooting five of seven from the field. At just 6-feet-4-inches tall, Tate played well beyond his size and showed off the ability to play in the low post. Russell proved he can be a do-it-all player for Matta and the Buckeyes, and both should see playing time early.
In fact, Russell started the exhibition game against Walsh and I’d bet on him being on the court for the tip against UMass-Lowell as well.
The third true freshman — forward Keita Bates-Diop — looked somewhat nervous and shot just one of eight from the field while redshirt-freshman guard Kam Williams admitted he came out trying to do everything too fast. But both should still contribute this season.
2. Who will shoulder the scoring load?
As a five-star recruit with a smooth shooting stroke, Russell could be the top offensive option for Matta. But don’t count out senior forward Sam Thompson.
Thompson scored 13 points in just 20 minutes of action against Walsh, and has the talent, experience and athleticism to put up strong numbers for the Buckeyes this season. If all goes as planned, it’s very possible Matta would prefer Thompson to shoulder more of the load this year as Russell gets acclimated to the college game.
Outside of that duo, sophomore forward Marc Loving was OSU’s top scoring threat in the exhibition with 12 points. I’d expect him to put up solid numbers, but he won’t be the one the Buckeyes go to when they need a quick bucket.
3. Who will earn more playing time down low?
Senior center Amir Williams is the incumbent starter, but redshirt-senior forward Anthony Lee might be the better player as he enters his first season at OSU.
The Temple transfer averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last season with the Owls and poured in eight points to go with seven boards against Walsh. To accompany his inside game, Lee stepped out and knocked down an elbow jumper, which is a skill Williams hasn’t showcased so far during his time in Columbus.
Both bring something different to the table and will likely receive significant playing time, but I wouldn’t count on Williams being in the starting five week in and week out.
Senior center Trey McDonald will also see some floor time for the Buckeyes, but Matta might opt to go with a smaller lineup at times, forcing McDonald to wait his turn.
4. Is there a one-and-done on the roster?
With players like Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos and Byron Mullins having already made the jump to the pros after one season under Matta, the OSU coach must know it’s a possibility this season.
The only likely candidate to declare for the NBA Draft after his freshman season on the current roster is Russell, and that decision is by no means a guarantee. If he puts up huge numbers, it could happen, but it’d be more likely to see Russell stick around for at least a couple of years.
And at the end of the day, there’s no guarantee just yet that he’ll end up being a pro prospect.
Outside of Russell, any other non-senior on the roster would have to put up earth-shattering numbers to even consider making the jump.
5. This team can run, but will they win?
There’s no doubt a round-of-64 loss to Dayton in the NCAA Tournament last season was a disappointment for OSU.
But as the main cogs in last year’s lineup — Craft, Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross — have moved on, there’s no point in dwelling a lot on what that edition of the Buckeyes accomplished.
The team this year has the talent on paper paired with more athleticism to allow it to get out on run. Leading up to the season, multiple players have expressed their desire to run an up-tempo style this year, and it showed against Walsh.
With senior guard Shannon Scott leading the break, the Buckeyes could put up big numbers in big situations. But with such a young lineup, there will be questions to be answered as to how much success they can have through a mostly easy preseason schedule and into Big Ten play.