The 2015-16 Ohio State men’s basketball season didn’t go as planned: that much is known. With only one junior on the roster and no seniors, leadership, experience and chemistry was a question.
Perhaps going into the 2016-17 season, maturity and learning from last season’s second-round exit from the NIT could be OSU’s greatest asset.
On Thursday afternoon, the Buckeyes held their annual media day inside the practice facility at the Jerome Schottenstein Center. OSU returns its six leading scorers from a season ago, looking to start a new trend of consecutive NCAA tournament berths — a streak that was snapped last season after seven straight appearances into “The Dance” from 2009-2015.
The only returning member not available to the media was redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson. Coach Thad Matta and the rest of the returning Buckeyes fielded questions on the offseason and the upcoming 2016-17 campaign.
Matta still hard on Buckeyes after last season
Since taking over the OSU program in 2004, coach Matta has come to expect, and deserve, to be a top contender in the conference every year. Last season’s team simply didn’t come close to the requirements. Failing to make the NCAA tournament for just the second time in his 12 seasons in Columbus, Matta isn’t letting his players soon forget about it.
“The biggest message (in the offseason) was we are going to fight for our culture every single day,” Matta said. “From the littlest of things, there’s going to be a demand of … we aren’t going to take anything for granted. We feel like we know what it takes to win here. I think we have the type of guys who are willing to do that.”
Redshirt junior guard Kam Williams said when he misses a shot in practice, Matta shouts, “That’s how you end up in the NIT!” Albeit harsh, Matta said his sarcasm isn’t always understood by his players, but he said that has to be the mindset.
When Matta took over the Buckeyes program, OSU was a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team who often received a whomping by conferences powerhouses Indiana and Michigan State. Matta has been to two Final Fours, one national championship game, won five regular-season Big Ten titles, won four Big Ten Tournament titles and has won more games on the OSU sideline than any coach in school history.
For all of that to return, he brought back former coaches Chris Jent and Alan Major to the staff, and Matta said he and the coaching staff have changed the structure of practice. Sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle said the players are being held accountable for their actions on the court and, most especially, off the court and in the classroom.
“I don’t think we’ll be like we were last year just because we don’t want that feeling again,” Lyle said. “We remember that feeling after the Michigan State game (in the Big Ten tournament) when we knew we weren’t going to the (NCAA) tournament and then playing in the NIT. Nobody wants that feeling again.”
Jae’Sean Tate ready to go
The junior forward underwent season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in February. Tate also had a minor surgery in the offseason on his right ankle to remove a loose body that was bothering him for much of the season. Now just six weeks before the team leaves for Annapolis, Maryland, for its first game of the season against Navy, Tate says he’s fully recovered.
“If we played today, I could play,” he said.
Before Tate went down with injury, he was the undeniable leader on and off the court for a team that was hanging by a thread for an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament. Tate averaged 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16. He said that not being able to finish the season last year is a chip on his shoulder he’s taking into this season.
“I feel like we’re hungrier this year,” Tate said. “Going into it — especially me and (senior forward) Marc (Loving), he’s going into his fourth (year), I’m going into my third (year), I wasn’t able to finish the year last year and we still haven’t won. I’ve won at every level and I feel like to let Marc leave here without any awards, it just isn’t right.”
Chris Jent making a difference
When assistant coach Jent left OSU after the 2012-2013 season, the Buckeyes just missed out on a Final Four appearance. Now Jent is back next to coach Matta on the sidelines and has been infectious thus far.
“With coach Jent coming back, there’s a lot of basketball wisdom from higher levels of playing that guys want to reach here,” senior forward Marc Loving said. “He’s a high energy guy. He’s very passionate about the game. I felt like that just oozes out of him and translates to us, where guys want to get to the gym and are looking for times to get in and get a couple reps before class and after class. Just having him around is definitely a plus.”
It’s no secret that Matta wants to get back to his winning ways at OSU. Recently he’s been criticized for letting in-state high-school talent leave the state for other top-notch programs, while OSU continues to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten for the past three years. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop said that Jent only knows OSU as a contender from his time as a player, from 1988 to 1992, and as a coach, so it’s natural for Jent to set high standards for this team.
“That’s what he expects of Ohio State,” Bates-Diop said. “No matter who’s the coach, no matter who’s playing.”
JaQuan Lyle, year two
Just like OSU’s season, the same can be said about sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle — there were some great moments, and some not so great moments. This season, however, Lyle is noticeably slimmer checking in at 210 pounds, looking to impose his will on the Big Ten and all of college basketball in 2016-17.
“Me personally, I think I’m at a good place right now. (I have) pretty much doubled my basketball smarts from last year just off of having that one year under my belt,” Lyle said. “I think the biggest thing for me when the season starts is consistency. Being able to come out every night and compete. When my shot isn’t falling, still being able to do something.”
Lyle occasionally showed the immaturity as a freshman, often times in big games. But in other instances, he would explode for a triple-double against Rutgers, 27 points on the road at Wisconsin and 29 points and eight rebounds at Indiana, among others. Consistency is undoubtedly a key for Lyle in his sophomore campaign, but he is attempting to channel the dominating player he knows he can be, which, in turn, might lead to a greater total in the win column.
“I want to play more minutes than I did last year,” Lyle said. “I want to compete at a higher level than I did last year for a longer period of time. That really drove me to start getting my body right.”