The Ohio State men’s basketball team finally got to step back on the hardwood Sunday after more than seven months since its last game, a loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament. It was an exhibition game, but the Buckeyes still topped Division II Walsh University 92-82 at the Schottenstein Center.
The youthful Buckeyes were led offensively by sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop, who dropped 26 points to go along with eight rebounds and four blocks, while junior forward Marc Loving added a double-double with 24 points and 10 boards.
Bates-Diop’s solid play was not expected by many, but his coach thought otherwise.
“(Playing aggressively on offense is something) we’ve talked to Keita about a lot. We saw flashes of that last year in practice,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “I thought offensively he was as aggressive as we wanted him to be … we’ve been begging him to do that on the court in a game.”
The lengthy 6-foot-7 Normal, Illinois, native averaged just nine minutes of play off the bench in 33 contests last season, tallying just 3.8 points a game.
Though Matta’s team went home victorious, the impressive performances do not seem likely to show up at many points this season, as OSU is not ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll.
The last time the Buckeyes were in this situation was in the 2008-09 season, when they also finished the season unranked. They did receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed after making a surprise run to the Big Ten championship game against Purdue before falling 65-61.
In the best-case scenario, Matta would repeat what he did in his third year as OSU’s coach in 2006, when he took his team from not being ranked to ending the season as No. 6 in the country and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, despite being upset in the second round to seventh-seeded Georgetown.
However, defying early expectations in the mold of the 2006 squad seems doubtful because of the players’ youthfulness. Matta admitted his squad can only improve by seeing more time on the floor, but that’s not going to happen for much of the season.
“We thought about playing two exhibition games because we were so young this year,” Matta said.
Though it’s too early to rule out OSU’s NCAA tournament chances, the possibility of postseason play would most likely occur in the National Invitation Tournament. Either way, any postseason play would be a plus for the program.
This year’s squad is best suited for Matta to build for the future. The Buckeyes currently do not have a player who is expected to enter the NBA draft or graduate this year other than redshirt senior and former walk-on Jake Lorbach, who averaged only 1.6 minutes in eight appearances last season.
In an era of one-and-done prospects, experience is a big help in making a deep run into March, and that’s a possibility for the team after it picks up a season’s worth of experience.
Six players saw their first action in the Schottenstein Center in front of 12,167 fans: freshmen JaQuan Lyle, Daniel Giddens, Austin Grandstaff, David Bell, A.J. Harris and Trevor Thompson.
“We had three guys today that have ever played in this building. So I think from that standpoint, that was a good thing for us,” Matta said.
Lyle — a combo guard who was a late edition to the current freshman class when former guard D’Angelo Russell’s NBA stock skyrocketed — had some early jitters before he showcased his much-publicized talent. He ended up flirting with a triple-double to end the night with 19 points, seven assists and nine rebounds.
“That’s the most people I ever played in front of. I mean it was a big difference,” Lyle said. “With my teammates behind me I got through it quick. It was just fun to finally be out there and playing.”
With the lone exhibition game in the rearview mirror, the focus turns to the games that count.
There are nine teams currently ranked on the schedule for the Buckeyes, including No. 6 Virginia.
That game is nonconference, but the slate won’t ease up when conference play comes around. Just as in previous years, Big Ten play is suiting up to be aggressive. There are currently six teams from the conference ranked in the top 25. Maryland sits at No. 3, followed by No. 13 Michigan State, No. 15 Indiana, No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 23 Purdue and No. 25 Michigan.
The road ahead appears to be bumpy and long, but it should be thought of as a building block for potential future success.
The Buckeyes are set to start the regular season Sunday against Mount St. Mary’s. Tipoff is slated for noon at the Schottenstein Center.