Excitement and uncertainty.
If there were two words to describe near-universal opinions from everyone about the Ohio State men’s basketball team, those two words would probably fit best.
In addition to a coaching change with Chris Holtmann being hired as head coach, the roster has experienced a high degree of turnover. The Buckeyes lost three of their five starters from a season ago while adding three touted recruits and gaining a healthy redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop.
The uncertainty starts in the head coach’s office as Holtmann said he knows who only two of his five starters will be when the team kicks off its season with an exhibition game against Wooster at 4 p.m. on Nov. 5 at the Schottenstein Center.
“[Senior forward] Jae’Sean Tate is going to be in [the starting lineup], Keita Bates-Diop is going to be in it,” Holtmann said in an interview with The Lantern Wednesday. “After that, I’m still trying to figure out where to go from there.
“I think we have multiple guys that can play and I think we’ll have a fairly fluid starting lineup throughout the year. That happens when you have eight to 10 guys that can potentially all start a game for you.”
The only other position Holtmann would go so far as to name a favorite in was at point guard, where junior C.J. Jackson was called the “likely starter.” Jackson being the likely starter should come as no surprise as he is the only true point guard on the roster.
A heavy weight will be added to Jackson’s shoulders if he is asked to be the on-court leader at point guard. Though he appeared in all 32 games for the Buckeyes last season, he started only nine games and averaged just 5.6 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
Holtmann said he has seen steady improvements out of Jackson since hired in June, but said he still needs to learn how to keep a cool head even he is dealt with some struggles.
“I’ve challenged [Jackson] to be a little more physical, to kind of grow in his areas of physicality and toughness and he’s embraced that,” Holtmann said. “Our biggest challenge with C.J. has been not to get too frustrated with himself because he’s going to have to play through mistakes this year because the ball’s going to be in his hands a lot, and he’s going to play an important role and he’s going to have to stay with the right approach.”
Jackson being the only natural point guard is a clear sign of the dire lack of depth the team possesses at the position. Holtmann said he believes both Tate and redshirt senior Andrew Dakich could play at the one if called upon by the team. However, Tate is more of a wing and Dakich played just 203 collegiate minutes before transferring to Ohio State. And, in prior seasons, he was more of a bench player.
The depth is not much more improved at the shooting guard position either. Freshman Musa Jallow and redshirt senior Kam Williams are natural shooting guards and are both unlikely to see much time at the point. Jallow is also a freshman playing college basketball in what would have been his senior year of high school — he reclassified over the summer and committed to Ohio State — and Williams was inconsistent last season.
“We are thin in the backcourt, we know that,” Holtmann said. “I think that’s well documented right, everybody who knows our team knows that people reflect on the point guard position, but we’re thin at the two.”
As for the roles of the trio of highly touted freshmen, Holtmann has yet to devise a full plan for what to do with them. The aforementioned Jallow will be able to play both shooting guard and small forward, while freshman Kaleb Wesson will provide the Buckeyes with a low-post player who could receive starting minutes at both center and power forward. Freshman Kyle Young is a big man who has the positional versatility to provide the Buckeyes with depth at both forward and potentially guard.
The flexibility of the young players gives Holtmann options when examining ways to fit them into his lineup.
“I think all three are going to play in every game,” Holtmann said. “I think they’ll all play significant roles. And when I say significant roles, I think they’re going to be in our top nine or 10 in our rotation, which is a significant role as a freshman. I think it’ll be varying degrees based on how guys develop and our needs for the relative to their position, but all three are ready to help us.”
The starting five is made all the more uncertain by the fact the team is currently dealing with a handful of injuries. Though Bates-Diop was listed as one of the starters, Holtmann said he has a knee injury. Wesson and Young each are also dealing with ailments as the former has a sprained ankle and the latter had his tonsils removed. Holtmann added that all three “have missed significant days of practice.”
“That slows you down a little bit, but you know, it’s nothing that is going to keep them out for a significant time and we’re all back and healthy right now,” Holtmann said.
Though clouded with uncertainty, Holtmann’s squad has the first-year head coach excited to begin the season and see what players will step up.
“We certainly have some new faces and some young people that we’ll need to grow into new roles,” Holtmann said. “But I’m excited about the potential of this group and I see those things.”