Thad Matta has had rosters led by standout freshmen and teams led by hardened veterans. This season, he’ll have a mix of both.
The Ohio State men’s basketball coach is entering his 11th season at the helm in Columbus as the team boasts a roster of four true freshmen, one redshirt-freshman and six seniors.
Matta sat down with The Lantern on Wednesday and discussed the task of melding together a team with a strong freshman class and experienced veterans on the same roster.
‘Still early to tell’ who leaders will be
A year ago, Matta knew exactly who the leaders of his team would be. Then-senior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. had been key contributors and leaders on the team for multiple seasons and were handpicked go-to guys off the court.
This season, the Buckeyes’ roster still boasts seniors who have been contributors — guard Shannon Scott and forward Sam Thompson, for example — but Matta said it’s still too early to say exactly who will step into leadership roles this season.
“Just in terms of how the season works and once you get into practice and you hit the tough days, you’re going through a stretch where it’s the fourth practice in four days, you’ve been going hard, at what point, what guy steps forward and says ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got to do, this is how we’ve got to do it’?” Matta said.
But the former Xavier University coach said he still has an idea of who exactly could step up this season.
“With that said, I think that Shannon and Sam have been guys that have played huge roles in this program,” Matta said. “I would expect all of our seniors to be — in terms of leadership — supplying some (leadership), but obviously we have to grow that as the season continues.”
Outside of Scott and Thompson, the other four seniors on the OSU roster include two centers, a transfer playing his first and only season for the Buckeyes and a walk on who Matta said “may come back another year.”
Forward Anthony Lee transferred to OSU from Temple during the offseason, but will be eligible to play right away because he has already graduated college. Fellow forward Jake Lorbach is a walk on who has never made an impact for the Buckeyes, and would not be expected to step into a leadership role.
The two centers — Amir Williams and Trey McDonald — are set to battle it out for playing time, but Matta said both could still find their ways into leadership roles on the team.
“Trey’s personality lends him to be a leader,” Matta said. “I think from Amir, I’m hoping he’ll come to the forefront in terms of saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do my part, I’ve got to help these guys and get them to understand how we do things here.’”
Thompson and Scott have the most experience for the Buckeyes, having played in 111 and 108 games, respectively, while Williams has donned a scarlet and gray uniform 101 times.
Freshmen “have the potential”
Even with veterans leading the way on the floor, Matta said his freshmen have a chance to step into roles as leaders.
He added most freshmen “lead by example,” and singled out guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Jae’Sean Tate as players setting the standard within their class.
“(Russell) likes to take command of his group and get guys where they need to be,” he said. “I think that’s just his winning mentality. I think a guy like Jae’Sean Tate is a guy who’s going to play so hard, he has so much energy, that you hope that permeates throughout the team in terms of, ‘Boy, he’s so productive.’”
Apart from Russell and Tate, the freshman class consists of center David Bell, forward Keita Bates-Diop and redshirt-freshman guard Kam Williams.
Matta singled out Bates-Diop as a player he hopes could step into a leadership role, but has room for improvement.
“He understands leadership. We just need him to be a little more vocal at times,” Matta said.
While he said he has some ideas of their leadership qualities, Matta said he goes into seasons without too many specific expectations for his freshman classes. He said he wants to take time to watch this year’s class before making judgments about their on-the-court status.
“I go into it with a very broad vision of what I think they’re going to be,” he said. “I want to see their play over the course of time.”
Matta said one of the keys will be to watch how the young players respond to both success and adversity in practice.
“A guy has a great practice, does he back it up with a really good practice?” he said. “Guy has a bad practice, does he have the toughness to bounce back and have a really good outing the next day?”
Even though he’s still in the evaluation process, Matta said each new player on the team has done something to make him take notice.
“All the new guys have done things that have caught my eye in terms of what they’re going to be able to bring to this basketball team,” he said. “Now getting it consistently is going to be the key for any freshman.”
The Buckeyes’ season is set to begin Nov. 14 when they host the University of Massachusetts-Lowell at the Schottenstein Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.