Ohio State is back.
The basketball Buckeyes are already in the midst of training camp, leading up to a Nov. 11 season opener against Navy in Annapolis, Md.
But is Ohio State back?
That, we won’t know, until the 2016-17 season concludes.
What was once thought to be the start of the golden age of Buckeyes basketball is now starting to look more like the peak of the program under the direction of head coach Thad Matta. In the three seasons since winning the 2013 Big Ten Tournament, which capped a four-year stretch of Ohio State obtaining a top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes have seen their status in both the Big Ten and in the national landscape steadily decline.
Rock bottom—or at least what Matta hopes will be rock bottom—came at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, when Ohio State failed to make the NCAA Tournament’ for the first time since 2008, settling instead for a spot in the NIT, where the Buckeyes were bounced in the second round.
“Whenever you lose five seniors and you lose the best guard in college basketball, that’s a hard adjustment when you go into practice,” Matta said at Thursday’s Big Ten basketball Media Day, referencing the expired eligibility of his 2011 recruiting class and the departure of the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, D’Angelo Russell. “We were more along the lines of trying to feel our guys out, get an understanding of what they can do and how they can do it and who plays well together.”
This season, the Buckeyes roster finds itself in a different type of transitional period. After leaning heavily on freshmen throughout the 2015-16 season, Ohio State finds itself returning just one player — guard JaQuan Lyle — from its 2015 recruiting class.
All indications, however, seem to be that the partings were mutual between the players and the program.
“You’ve got to get guys that got both feet in and are committed,” Matta said. “Because as a young player, you’re going to have more bad days than good days in the beginning, and if you’re looking for the door if things don’t go your way, you’re probably not going to be the type of player that you want to be. I think right now, I like the guys.”
Despite the exodus of youngsters, the Buckeyes will return their top five scorers from a season ago, led by the only senior on the team, forward Marc Loving (14 points per game). Forwards Keita Bates-Diop (11.8 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) and Jae’Sean Tate (11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) will continue to serve as Matta’s glue guys, and guard Kam Williams (8.3 points per game) is capable of providing a spark at either spot.
But Ohio State’s growth in the coming year will largely be dependent on the development of Lyle.
A former 4-star prospect and top-50 recruit, Lyle showed flashes in his freshman season of being Matta’s next great combo guard, including scoring a season-high 29 points against Indiana, 27 points against Wisconsin and recording a triple-double in a win over Rutgers. Ultimately, however, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard’s inconsistencies weighed his stat line down to 11.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.
Lyle possesses the highest upside of any player on Ohio State’s roster. But if he’s ever going to reach his potential—and the Buckeyes are going to reach theirs—it’s going to have to start with Lyle displaying the consistency he lacked a year ago.
Unlike a year ago, Matta has a returning core he can rely on, and for the first time since Jared Sullinger returned for his sophomore season in 2011, the 13th-year Buckeyes head coach can say he’s bringing back his best player. Ohio State also adds the nation’s No. 41 recruiting class from the 2016 cycle, including 4-star center Derek Funderburk, but look for this to be one of Matta’s more veteran-laden teams in recent memory.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are returning, but I think there’s more of a sense of urgency,” Matta said. “This year, the mindset is just a heck of a lot different in terms of just do it or you won’t play.”
If enough guys prove that and Lyle enjoys a sophomore surge, perhaps the Buckeyes will indeed be back.