After finishing the 2014-15 season in sixth place in the Big Ten and an early tournament exit, the Ohio State men’s basketball team is returning with five new faces after the loss of four starters.
The experience lost to graduation and the professional world could be a big blow to the Buckeyes, and even coach Thad Matta isn’t yet sure what this team is capable of.
“There are a lot of unknowns about this basketball team … it’s not by design, but there are some unknowns,” Matta said during the team’s media day on Tuesday.
Last season’s leading scorer and first-team All-American D’Angelo Russell, who averaged 19.3 points per game, was lost to the NBA draft, where he went second overall to the Los Angeles Lakers. Four-year forward and high-flyer Sam Thompson was lost to graduation. The combination of the two lost starters equated to 29.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season.
Additionally, lack of leadership and experience could prove to be the biggest obstacle coming into the season for Matta’s team. Much of that element was lost in point guard Shannon Scott.
“We’ve been young before, been inexperienced, but like this? I’m not sure,” Matta said.
Sophomore guard Jae’Sean Tate, who earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team last year, said the team is aware of its inexperience.
“With this year having such a young team, this summer we’ve been really, really putting emphasis on creating leadership, being leaders to the young guys and bring them along,” Tate said.
With 19 starts last season, junior Marc Loving is the most veteran member of the team as its lone junior. Redshirt senior forward Jake Lorbach is a former walk-on who made only eight appearances last season. Loving said he has been turned to lead the team alongside Tate and redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams.
Matta is tasked with the job of maneuvering a young team that’s not expected to be quite at the level of last year’s squad — but there are pieces he can work with.
Alongside Tate, Williams and Loving, two freshmen in the highly touted guard JaQuan Lyle and center Daniel Giddens could fill out the starting five.
It was initially believed Matta had his recruiting class locked up in November, but with Russell’s draft stock skyrocketing, he went on the hunt for a replacement.
Lyle, a 6-foot-5 combo guard from Evansville, Indiana, originally committed to Oregon before falling short on academic credits to compete. That led to an additional year at IMG Academy Prep School in Bradenton, Florida.
Matta said he is confident Lyle will develop into a solid contributor.
“I think he has a chance to be a heck of a basketball player,” Matta said. “We saw in him, when we were recruiting him the first time, just a guy who could run a basketball team, could pass, could score in a lot of different ways.”
Unlike Russell, Lyle doesn’t have a definite position. Because of his size and strength, he could find himself playing either guard position, or even stepping up to small forward.
While the team lacks experience, Loving said its freshmen make up for it with versatility, singling out Lyle’s basketball IQ, point guard A.J. Harris’ speed with the ball and Giddens’ strength and shot-blocking ability.
After being defeated by Arizona in their second game of the NCAA tournament by Arizona and finishing 24-11 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten during the 2014-15 season, the Buckeyes could face an uphill climb to return to the postseason.
“We’re always going to play with a chip on our shoulders,” Loving said. “And that’s just giving us more motivation to not only prove them wrong, but to prove us right.”
With all the challenges heading into the season, Matta said he still remains optimistic.
“For us, every day is a day toward the future,” Matta said. “Every day is going to be growth for this basketball, growth offensively and defensively.”
The Buckeyes are scheduled to begin their season on Nov. 8 against Walsh University in an exhibition at the Schottenstein Center. Their regular-season opener is then slated for a week later at home against Mount St. Mary’s.