Season-opening games in college basketball can, at times, be a bore. But Friday night at the Schottenstein Center, there was something to get excited about: five-star recruit D’Angelo Russell was making his Ohio State regular season debut.
With many eyes on him, the first question posed to the freshman guard after the game was straightforward. Was he nervous?
“No, sir. Not at all.”
As if anyone needed confirmation of that. Russell led the No. 20 Buckeyes (1-0) in scoring with 16 points, in steals with three and added four rebounds and six assists in the team’s 92-55 victory over the University of Massachusetts-Lowell (0-2).
With the addition of Russell, OSU coach Thad Matta has now brought nine five-star recruits to Columbus in his 11-year tenure. After Friday’s game he said his young playmaker, of whom much is expected, is already someone he trusts.
“I’ve always said this about him: I don’t exactly know what position he is. But he’s a guard. You see his vision, he’s got that unique pace about him and sort of how he sees things is unique, especially for a freshman playing his first college game,” Matta said. “Having the ability to use him as much as we possibly can, you feel comfortable when the ball’s in his hands and he’s making decisions.”
Those decisions started right from tip-off, as Russell was seemingly everywhere. He grabbed his team’s first rebound, points, assist and foul, all within the game’s first two-and-a-half minutes.
Roughly two minutes later, Russell was in the thick of things again, this time with a flurry of activity that would make former OSU guard Aaron Craft proud. Russell first nabbed a steal before assisting a Sam Thompson alley-oop, and he then got a layup for himself after a River Hawk turnover. All of this in a 14-second span.
Thompson, a senior forward with the most playing experience of any member of the team, said the entire group of Buckeye debutants — Russell, Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams, Keita Bates-Diop and Anthony Lee — did their part in what was a convincing win.
“I think the newcomers did a great job. We wanted to play fast, we wanted to have our defense translate to some offense, we wanted to get some easy buckets. I think we did a good job of doing that,” Thompson said. “Anthony did his thing on the offensive boards, finishing around the rim. D-Russ is always good at pushing the ball in transition, making plays for himself, making plays for everybody else so I think we did what we wanted to do today. It’s the first game of the season, there’s a lot of room to improve but I’m happy with where we are.”
While Russell had a hand in every facet of the contest, the other new faces contributed in different ways. Lee, a redshirt-senior transfer from Temple, hit all five of his field goal attempts to help him rack up 13 points. Freshman forwards Tate and Bates-Diop each had four points, with the former adding five rebounds on the defensive glass.
Like his highly touted backcourt teammate, redshirt-freshman guard Williams also made an impression. The Baltimore, Md., native played only 13 minutes but had 12 points in that time, one of five OSU players in double-digits.
Williams went one for six from the field on Nov. 9 in OSU’s exhibition victory over Walsh. Following Friday’s game, Matta said Williams’ improvement was because of the work he put in during the week.
“I was very happy for Kam, because he’s a hard-working kid and he’s very hard on himself at times,” Matta said. “He knew he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well on Sunday, he’s in here getting extra shots, he’s watching film. And when you see that type of preparation, it makes you excited as a coach to see a kid play well.”
Thompson also commented on Williams’ scoring ability.
“Kam’s always been a guy who can score the basketball. He can shoot, he can get to the rim, he’s a great athlete. He really hunts buckets and that’s just what he does. He knows his job on this team is to put the ball in the basket,” he said. “Like I said earlier, when we’re doing our job, it’s when we’re at our best. He did a good job of coming in and just playing his game.”
But for all the other strong efforts, the scene still came back to Russell. Considering the game against UMass-Lowell was the first time in 148 competitive games that OSU took the court without the aforementioned Craft, that focus is understandable.
At the moment, though, that reliance doesn’t seem to be a factor. Russell said that he agreed with Thompson’s assertion that the team’s strength is in its scoring depth, with everyone contributing to the collective.
“Like Sam said, it’s five that happen to get in there,” he said. “It could be any five guys, we’ve got a good group of guys that can fill it up any night.”
The Buckeyes’ next attempt to fill up the scoreboard will come on Tuesday night at home against Marquette. Tip off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.