Ohio State’s men’s basketball team is coming off a season that was mediocre by its lofty standards. The Buckeyes had reached four consecutive Sweet 16s before bowing out in their second-round matchup with Dayton in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
They entered the offseason with the daunting task of replacing their all-time steals leader, Aaron Craft, who has moved onto pursuing a career in the NBA, and senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. A team that struggled to score the ball last season will now have to rely on a plethora of freshman to carry the load on the offensive end.The Buckeyes have a chance to improve on their fifth place Big Ten finish in the 2014-15 campaign if they can find a way to successfully integrate new and inexperienced talents with the veterans already in place. Here are the top five impact players for the Ohio State Buckeyes if they want to compete for a Big Ten championship:
No. 1: D’Angelo Russell
Russell, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Montverde Academy in Florida, becomes the centerpiece of an Ohio State team in need of scoring. The Buckeyes scored less than 70 points per game in 2013-14, and by all accounts Russell can fill it up from all over the floor.
He has 3-point range and an aggressive mentality that Ohio State has lacked on the offensive end for some time now. Russell could presumably take over the primary scorer’s role, much like fellow lefty Deshaun Thomas had in his final season in Columbus.
Depending on how fast he develops, Russell could play some point guard for head coach Thad Matta as well. He did not start in Ohio State’s scrimmage in the Bahamas, but Matta will be hard pressed to find a better option in the backcourt. He will not be coming off the bench for long.
One thing that is certain about Russell is he’s a winner. He led Montverde to a 28-0 record in 2013-14, en route to a national championship at the High School National Tournament in New York City.
No. 2: Shannon Scott
Shannon Scott is the veteran in the backcourt for Ohio State and will be counted on as the floor general when the new season comes around. Scott is known around the Big Ten for his relentless ball pressure, often complementing Aaron Craft’s defensive prowess.
The problem arose last season when he was put it positions to run the offense as the primary ball handler. Scott often crumbled under pressure, either turning the ball over or putting his teammates in poor scoring positions.
Scott needs to make a leap offensively to give the Buckeyes a chance to beat top competition in the Big Ten and nationally. The combination of Scott and Craft was often hard to watch, and now Scott has to show the younger guards how to handle the pressures of big time college basketball.
His mentorship off the court will be almost as important as his improvement on the court.
As Ohio State’s sixth man in 2013-14, he played 26.8 minutes per game and averaged almost two turnovers.
He has to take care of the ball and be a more confident offensive player, stepping into open jumpers when they are available. Scott sometimes becomes timid when in scoring position, which is detrimental to the team.
If he can add some scoring punch for the Buckeyes along with his defensive intensity, Ohio State’s backcourt could be one of the most formidable in the country.
No. 3: Marc Loving
Loving received a crash course in Big Ten hoops during his freshman season in Columbus. He played all 35 games and averaged 4.4 points per game in a limited role off the bench. His time was scarce, but the experience he gained was valuable going into his second year.
Loving figures to be one of the starters in the front court for Ohio State when the season kicks off. He has the length to be a dynamic wing in the Big Ten, but is passive at times.
Loving’s increased role in the offense should allow him more freedom as a scorer and his subtle defensive strengths will begin to show more.
Loving has the potential to one day be an All-Big Ten performer and 2014-15 is a huge year for him and his development.
No. 4: Sam Thompson
Thompson’s athleticism has been well documented. His highlight reel dunks have made SportsCenter’s Top 10 on multiple occasions.
However, his real leap as a player began in the second half of his junior season when he got the nod as the starter on the road at Wisconsin Feb. 1. Thompson immediately began to give Ohio State the scoring punch they desperately needed to pick up some big conference wins down the stretch.
The biggest surprise in his game was the 3-point range he showed. He tied a career-high with three 3-point field goals against Northwestern Feb. 19 and followed that up with a season-high 19 points against Minnesota Feb. 22.
He was the lone offensive bright spot in Ohio State’s second-round loss to Dayton, scoring a team-best 18 points on a career-high eight field goals.
The 2014-15 Buckeyes have the potential to be a much more potent offensive team than in years past if Thompson can bring his scoring punch off the bench once again. It will be interesting to see if Matta plays his younger guys more or if he sticks with the veterans like he’s done in years past.
But Thompson may never leave the floor if he continues to shoot the ball from distance with such accuracy.
No. 5: Amir Williams
Amir Williams is one of the most frustrating, but important players for the Buckeyes. Fans in Columbus have been waiting for the 6-foot-11 center to play to his potential for years now.
It is imperative that he take charge of the frontcourt in his senior season with a huge depth issue looming.
With freshman center Dave Bell likely looking at a redshirt year and Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson ineligible, Williams becomes the only option in the middle for the Buckeyes. There’s no reason Williams can’t become a double-double machine in his final season.
His near-7-foot frame can be very imposing as a shot blocker, and that would take a lot of pressure off younger frontcourt players like Loving and freshman wings Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate.
Much has been said about Williams’ lack of effort on the court, but a lot of the criticism is unfair. He cares about his performance, but he needs to do a better job of positioning himself to be more impactful on the offensive and defensive boards.
He is too large to get pushed out the paint as frequently as he does.