COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was 10 years ago Thursday the best recruiting class in Ohio State basketball history made its debut.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Matta said on Wednesday. “It was like, ‘How much longer is Greg (Oden) going to be out?”
Even without the aid of the nation’s top-ranked recruit, who was nursing a wrist injury at the time, the Buckeyes’ prevailed, beating VMI 107-69 behind 22 points from guard Daequan Cook. A day later, the 5-star freshman added 18 points in a victory over Loyola of Chicago.
Matta knew it was time for a talk with his sudden 20-points-per-game scorer.
“OK, you’re averaging 20 points per game,” Matta told Cook. “And your man is averaging 22.”
Cook had a solution in mind.
“I’ll score more,” the eventual first-round NBA pick gleefully offered.
“That’s a true story,” Matta recalled. “That’s not where I was going with that.”
A decade after the 2006-07 season, which ended with a loss in the national title game to defending champion Florida, there’s not the same buzz around the Ohio State basketball program. But when the Buckeyes take the hardwood in Annapolis, Md. on Friday night for their season opener against Navy, they’ll do so with a renewed sense of optimism following last year’s disappointing campaign, which came to an end in the NIT.
“I’m jacked up and ready to roll,” Matta said.
Matta may not have the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class to rely on, as he did 10 years ago, but for the first time in a few years, there is plenty of cause for hope around Ohio State basketball.
For the first time since Jared Sullinger returned for his sophomore season in 2011, the Buckeyes will bring back their leading scorer from the previous year. The same rings true of their leading rebounder. No more questions about replacing Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross, Aaron Craft or D’Angelo Russell. For the first time in five years, Ohio State enters a season with an established identity it can count on.
That, however, won’t be enough to put the Buckeyes back in the NCAA Tournament. Rather, Ohio State finds itself relying on a number of players making individual progress in the coming year.
And no player holds a larger share of the key to the Buckeyes unlocking their potential in 2017 than JaQuan Lyle.
The (potential) star
Returning to Ohio State for his sophomore season, Lyle is looking to make strides in consistency after a boom-or-bust freshman campaign. On some nights, the former 4-star prospect looked like the second coming of Evan Turner, posting eye-popping stat lines like the 22-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist performance in a late-season win over Penn State. On other nights, he struggled to make a positive impact, as was the case in an 0-for-2, 1-point showing in 24 minutes in a January defeat to Maryland.
Last season, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard averaged 11.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. But even if he improves his season stat line as a sophomore, the Buckeyes will need more consistent showings from Lyle in order to reach their potential in the coming year.
“It’s the little things,” Lyle said this past summer, coming off of an attention-grabbing effort at Chris Paul’s summer basketball camp.
The supporting cast
The group around Lyle starts with junior forward Jae’Sean Tate, who missed the final seven games of the 2015-16 campaign because of a shoulder injury. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Tate is a do-it-all glue guy who averaged 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game a season ago.
Along with Tate, the Buckeyes will rely on a size-heavy starting five, including fellow forwards Keita Bates-Diop (11.8 points per game, 6.4 rebounds) and Marc Loving (14.0 points per game, 5.3 rebounds). Despite their size, the Buckeyes forwards are capable of shooting from long distance. Last season, Tate, Bates-Diop and Loving combined to make an average of 3.2 three-pointers per game on 33.7-percent shooting.
And then there’s freshman Micah Potter, who Matta seems to be leaning toward as his starting center. In an exhibition against Walsh, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound player from Mentor, Ohio, scored six points and recorded five rebounds in 16 minutes.
Like his partners in the frontcourt, the former 3-star prospect is capable of doing damage from long-distance.
“He has been solid from Day 1, up to this point,” Matta said. “How does it continue to go for him? … He’s done a very good job.”
When it comes to the Buckeyes’ bench, junior combo guard Kam Williams (8.3 points per game, 43.7 percent from deep in 2015-16) will lead the way. Transfer point guard C.J. Jackson (16.9 points, 4.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game at Eastern Florida State), last season’s starting center, Trevor Thompson, and freshman forward Derek Funderburk should also each contribute.
While it may not be as top-heavy talent-wise, this should be one of the deeper teams in Matta’s 13 seasons at Ohio State.
By the time Big Ten play arrives on New Year’s Day, the Buckeyes should already be battle-tested.
Three weeks and seven games into the season on Nov. 30, the Buckeyes head to Charlottesville, Va., to take on a Virginia team that enters the upcoming season ranked seventh in the USA Today Coaches Poll and eighth in the AP Top 25. Last season, the Cavaliers beat Ohio State 64-58 in Columbus.
About a week later, the Buckeyes could get another shot against a ranked team when Connecticut comes to the Schottenstein Center on Dec. 10. The Huskies rank 16th in the coaches poll and 18th in the AP. They also return their top scorer from a season ago in senior guard Rodney Purvis.
On Dec. 17, Ohio State heads Las Vegas, where they’ll face UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic Basketball Tournament. The Bruins enter the 2016-17 ranking 16th in the AP and No. 20 in the coaches poll.
Two weeks later, the grind that is Big Ten play begins, with five teams in the league entering the season ranked nationally. The Buckeyes aren’t one of them, but possess the potential to be by season’s end.
If they are, that buzz that surrounded Ohio State basketball a decade ago just may start to build back up.