In the eyes of many, last season’s 21-14 (11-7 Big Ten) record was a humbling moment for an Ohio State program that had underachieved for three straight seasons. Almost eight months removed from OSU’s second-round loss to Florida in the National Invitational Tournament, the 2016-17 Buckeyes serve as the final string of tolerance for a fanbase eager to return to the glory days of OSU basketball under 13th-year coach Thad Matta.
OSU opens its season on Friday against Navy in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Maryland. Coming off of its 85-67 exhibition win versus Walsh, Matta and his team are ready to begin a new chapter in OSU basketball.
“Honestly, I’m ready to go. I’m excited to play,” Matta said. “I’m excited for the event that we’re in. From my standpoint, I’m jacked up ready to go.”
It’s been nearly six weeks since practice began for the team and Matta said that the play of the four newcomers has given them the opportunity to see the floor.
Freshman center Micah Potter started in the exhibition game over incumbent redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson, who most expected to remain in the starting role. Potter showed off his ability to stretch the defense with his outside shooting and displayed a knack for rebounding the basketball in traffic. Freshmen Derek Funderburk and Andre Wesson, and junior-college transfer sophomore C.J. Jackson all saw the court against Walsh and were a factor at times in the game.
Matta is known for giving his younger players action in the exhibition game before the real games begin, and Sunday was just that. However, Matta has seen enough from the class of 2016 in practice that has earned them playing time. Just how much, that is still to be determined, but Potter is expected to start on Friday with the rest of the class coming off the bench.
“The more experience we can get those guys, the better they’re going to be in terms of making the adjustment from high school basketball into college basketball,” he said. “Obviously how they’re playing dictates a lot of that but I thought most of the new guys did a pretty good job the other night.”
The newcomers could play a key role in getting OSU back into the NCAA tournament after missing it last year for the first time since 2008, but Matta will ride his top six returning scorers, specifically junior forward Jae’Sean Tate and sophomore point guard JaQuan Lyle.
Since Tate was a surprise contributor his freshman season, he has been nothing but consistent. When OSU has needed a bucket in the past, Tate is the guy to get into the paint and either create his own shot through contact or be patient enough for the right shot. For Lyle, he was a bit more of a wild card.
Lyle averaged 11.2 points and 4.2 assists per game in 2015-16, a solid mark for a true freshman. However, there was a discrepancy between several games for the Evansville, Indiana, native. He looked like a promising point guard in games like Rutgers, at Indiana and at Nebraska in overtime — triple-double, 29 points, and 19 points and seven rebounds, respectively — but then would disappear in many other games including a five-point loss at home to No. 6 Maryland where he scored just one point in 18 minutes.
For 2016-17, the question for Lyle is if he can take that next step, which could put OSU into one of the top teams in the conference. Lyle has gotten slimmer and a bit stronger from last season, which bodes well for a point guard who uses his body to absorb contact when attacking the basket. He also has taken on a leadership role on the team.
In the second half against Walsh, Funderburk went to the free-throw line when Lyle looked the freshman in the eyes and told him to “knock these down, and then we’re going to get a stop.”
“He’s our starting point guard so he has to be the leader on the court,” Funderburk said. “If it’s not JT or Marc, it’s likely JaQuan Lyle.”
For Tate, Friday’s game will be the first real game since he went down with a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season last year. As a second-year captain, Tate is anxious to get back on the court. Being a local product from Pickerington, Ohio, he said the fact OSU hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since he’s been in the program is something he takes to heart.
“I feel like we’re going to Navy, we’re going in with the right mindset,” he said. “We’ve been working hard this week in practice and I think we’re hungry to start the season.”
As far as the Midshipmen go, Matta knows a little bit about the team due to his familiarity with Navy coach Ed DeChellis, who was formerly at Penn State.
DeChellis led a Navy squad to a record of 19-14 in 2015-16, and 9-9 in the Patriot League. The Midshipmen return two starters from the year before, including their leading scorer, junior guard Shawn Anderson. Senior guard Tim Abruzzo attempted 130 three-pointers a season ago and could be asked to do more of the same.
Matta said just knowing DeChellis from his Penn State days, Navy is a tough and disciplined basketball team that likes to be physical against cutters on defense and executes well in the halfcourt.
Since Walsh, the mantra from Matta to his team has been “think the game of basketball.” There were points in the exhibition where OSU had a slow pace on offense and struggled with keeping possession of the basketball. In the second half, though, it was much different.
OSU controlled the pace of play and caused several turnovers in the second half on way to an 18-point victory. Tate said each time out, the goal is to play that way from the tip, not after halftime.
“There was times where we didn’t cut as fast as we needed to or run the floor as fast as we needed to, focusing on the little things, and I felt like we could’ve guarded the ball better,” he said. “Going into Navy … the little things are going to be important to beat that team.”
At the top of the Big Ten conference, Wisconsin and Michigan State are the overwhelming favorites. After that, it’s anyone’s game.
Michigan, Indiana and Maryland are other conference teams who figure to consistently be at the top of the league, but OSU is a serious challenger for a top four spot in the Big Ten tournament come March.
Forward Marc Loving is entering his final season as a Buckeye, still trying to live up to the hype he came to Columbus with. However, with player like Tate, Lyle, junior forward Keita Bates-Diop and sparkplug redshirt junior guard Kam Williams off the bench, there is plenty of scoring to go around for Matta’s crew.
OSU has four major nonconference opponents in Providence, No. 8 Virginia, No. 18 Connecticut and No. 17 UCLA. Winning two of those, and earning victories in all of the games it should win, will go a long way toward OSU’s chances at returning to the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten has five teams in the Associated Press Top 25 Preseason Poll — four in the top 15 — so OSU has plenty of opportunities on its schedule for signature wins.
Overall record: 23-8 (12-6, 4th Big Ten)
NCAA tournament: Yes, second-round knockout
Surprise of the season: JaQuan Lyle contends for Big Ten Player of the Year