If Ohio State's basketball season was any more of a roller-coaster, half their fanbase would have puked over the side of the car by now. Undoubtedly, some already have, but that's a different story.
The Buckeyes' typically fierce defense has been overshadowed by an offense that hasn't been able to get out of its own way. Against Indiana last Sunday, Ohio State could only make one—yes, ONE—shot outside the paint in the entire game. As might be expected, such a drought led to OSU's eighth Big Ten loss of the season, the school's most in the last five years.
A season that began with measured optimism has settled into a fog of unmet expectations and disappointment, even though it's still going to end somewhere in the NCAA tournament. A hot March run with a couple of tournament victories isn't completely out of the question, but it's doubtful anyone who hasn't overdosed on scarlet Kool-Aid is betting the mortgage on such an event.
As such, it may be time to begin looking forward. Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class currently ranks sixth nationally, according to 247 Sports, and coach Thad Matta hopes he's still not done. Even if he is, the incoming talent could cure a lot of ills if it all pans out as it should.
Shot(s) in the Arm
Fans who attend Ohio State games to watch great three-point shooting may as well attend NASCAR races to watch for judicious use of turn signals. Both groups are completely wasting their time.
According to KenPom.com, the Buckeyes defense ranks first in the country in three-point defense, allowing only 27.7 percent shooting from deep. Offensively, however, the shooting is almost as frigid. OSU hits 33.3 percent of its own triples, good for 220th in the nation.
Guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., neither of whom sit among the nation's most consistent shooters, will graduate this spring and be replaced by a pair of freshmen who should provide immediate improvement in that area.
Shooting guard D'Angelo Russell of Louisville, Ky.—by way of Montverde Academy in Florida—is ranked among the nation's top five prospects at his position by nearly every recruiting service available. He boasts a complete combo guard's game, with the ability to handle, pass and score in the lane. However, it's Russell's first-three-rows range that produces the most excitement.
“The first time I ever saw [Russell] play, he had six threes in the first half and the second half, he didn’t take a one but he probably had 10 assists,” Matta said to Eric Seger of OSU's campus paper The Lantern. “He’s just got something about him.”
At this point, it should be considered a major upset if Russell isn't starting next to Shannon Scott in Matta's backcourt next season.
Small forward Keita Bates-Diop (Bloomington, Ill.) is another sweet shooter who may still have to contend with veterans Sam Thompson, Marc Loving and LaQuinton Ross for playing time. Expect that shooting to get him on the floor somewhere unless his defense lags far behind.
"Shooting is a mentality, and I think we've got a couple guys coming in that have that mentality of shooting," Matta said to Ari Wasserman of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "D'Angelo and Keita—that's why we recruited them, to make shots." The interview came on the heels of the 6'8" Bates-Diop scoring 31 points in a January loss to St. Vincent-St. Mary's of Akron.
Wrong Kind of Cutting
Another touted forward prospect, Jae'Sean Tate of Pickerington, Ohio, was shut down last month for surgery on a torn labrum. The injury originally occurred last May, but Tate played through it in the first 15 games of his senior season, averaging 20.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, according to the Pickerington Times-Sun.
There is no timetable for a full recovery, but it's likely Tate will still be rehabbing the injury when he arrives in Columbus.
The injury could be a blessing in disguise, as the 6'5", 205-pound Tate is a power forward in a shooting guard's body. A season of careful rehab and weight training, perhaps even a redshirt campaign, may be the best thing to allow him to grow into his game. Besides, that frontcourt logjam doesn't need one more body, even if he may be the best pure rebounder of the bunch.
A lengthy convalescence for Tate may make it more imperative that Matta play ESPN 3-star prospect David Bell, a 6'10", 215-pound center from Garfield Heights, Ohio. Bell's senior season hit a crescendo when he dropped 19 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks in a sectional championship win. Matta's plan, nevertheless, has been to redshirt Bell and bring him along slowly.
"I always go back to a guy named Tyrus Thomas. He went to LSU and nobody knew who he was, redshirts one year and then is in the NBA after that," Matta said in another interview with the Plain Dealer's Wasserman. "Big guys mature different than guards sometimes. It takes a little bit longer to click for them."
Amir Williams and Trey McDonald will be seniors next season, giving Matta plenty of experience in the post. It just hasn't always been productive experience.
The Dream Scenario
Matta's most fervent dream right now is to pull out a surprise triumph and land 6'11" center Myles Turner out of Trinity HS in Bedford, Tex. Turner took his first official visit to Ohio State back in October, but much of the speculation on his future centers around the top programs in his home state, most notably Texas and SMU.
Turner has also officially visited Oklahoma State and Kansas, with Duke lined up for this weekend. Turner will be in the house when the Blue Devils finish their regular season against North Carolina.
Landing Turner would end any speculation about the Buckeyes' center position, while also effectively decimating the playing time of both Williams and McDonald.
The McDonald's All-American Game and Nike Hoop Summit will heavily inform Turner's decision, as he seeks to determine his level of chemistry with potential future teammates. According to Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv, Turner and his father are in steady contact with D'Angelo Russell and his dad, and the two players will be teammates on the McDonald's East team.
“Ohio State needs Myles Turner,” Antonio Russell told Zagoria. “The rest of the schools just want him.”
Turner will also be teamed with Duke signees Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, Kentucky recruit Karl Towns and Kansas pledge Cliff Alexander at the McDonald's game. At the Hoop Summit, he'll play alongside Jones, Winslow and Alexander, along with another Duke commit, Jahlil Okafor, and Kansas signee Kelly Oubre.
Buckeyes fans need to monitor Kansas center Joel Embiid's future closely. If Embiid declines to enter the NBA draft, that will remove one prominent suitor for Turner. "Coach [Bill] Self told me himself that Embiid stays it's not worth my time," Turner said in a USA Today online chat.
Stacking the Charts
Assuming that Turner doesn't come to Columbus and LaQuinton Ross stays, look for OSU to field a starting five of Scott, Russell, Thompson, Ross and Williams next season. As the class stands now, the Buckeyes have done nothing to fix their post positions, but adding Russell and Bates-Diop will help immensely in terms of spreading the floor.
Matta told The Lantern that he was most concerned with replacing the departing Craft and Smith, and that mission is accomplished. Russell, Bates-Diop and Tate can all play multiple positions, giving the staff the kind of flexibility it'll need with a lineup so wiry.
A quick projected depth chart:
|Pos.||No. 1||No. 2||No. 3|
|SG||Russell||Della Valle||K. Williams|
With shooters like these and the potential to add a game-changing center, the future looks rosy not just for the freshmen, but for the veterans as well. Scott, Thompson and Ross all thrive when they can get into the lane, but they haven't found nearly the openings they'd like this year.
Most Ohio-based fans got their first in-person look at Bates-Diop when he traveled to Kettering for the Flyin' to the Hoop Invitational, the event which saw his team take on St. Vincent-St. Mary's. "Most of those (Ohioans) haven't seen me play," Bates-Diop told Wasserman. "I wanted to give them a taste of what they're going to be seeing."
A 31-point game, even in defeat, makes for a sweet taste of the future. Buckeyes fans can use all the good signs they can get as they begin to ponder the post-Craft era.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron. This week on the podcast: who's most at risk in a court storming and why the conference tournament system is broken.